On June 21, 1990, a teenager in St. Paul, MN, identified only as R.A.V., burned a cross in the front yard of an African-American family. He was charged with violating the St. Paul Bias-Motivated Crime Ordinance which stated,
Whoever places on public or private property, a symbol, object, appellation, characterization or graffiti, including, but not limited to, a burning cross or Nazi swastika, which one knows or has reasonable grounds to know arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender commits disorderly conduct and shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.
The teenager appealed the charge on the grounds that the law was an unconstitutional violation of his free speech rights. The case is known as R.A.V. vs City of St Paul. The Minnesota Supreme Court found in favor of St Paul and upheld the law. It was then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court which struck down the law in a unanimous decision. Justice Scalia, writing the majority opinion, said,
Although the phrase in the ordinance, “arouses anger, alarm or resentment in others,” has been limited by the Minnesota Supreme Court’s construction to reach only those symbols or displays that amount to “fighting words,” the remaining, unmodified terms make clear that the ordinance applies only to “fighting words” that insult, or provoke violence, “on the basis of race, color, creed, religion or gender.” Displays containing abusive invective, no matter how vicious or severe, are permissible unless they are addressed to one of the specified disfavored topics. Those who wish to use “fighting words” in connection with other ideas — to express hostility, for example, on the basis of political affiliation, union membership, or homosexuality — are not covered. The First Amendment does not permit St. Paul to impose special prohibitions on those speakers who express views on disfavored subjects.
“Let there be no mistake about our belief that burning a cross in someone’s front yard is reprehensible. But St. Paul has sufficient means at its disposal to prevent such behavior without adding the First Amendment to the fire.”
What does this have to do with climate change? Nothing.
What does this have to do with climate change deniers? Plenty.
Climate change denial has reached the point of offensiveness that I now contend it is the moral equivalent of racial slurs. Racial slurs serve the purpose of denigrating someone based on some irrelevant basis, such as the color of their skin or their religious beliefs. There is no logic or factual basis to support the claims of people that use these slurs, although they will very vigorously claim there is. I cannot tell you how many racists I have listened to that have gone on about how one race is better than another one, or one religions is superior to another.
Yet, in this country, people are free to hold those opinions and to even voice them (with certain restrictions, most notably the ‘fighting words’ standard). So, if someone wants to go and use a slur in reference to some other person or group of people, they are free to do so. The words may be reprehensible, but they are free to use them.
However, everyone else is also free to condemn them for their words and even for their beliefs. We are free to label someone as a racist and to shun them from our society for their viewpoints. Part of the reason most of us find this kind of thought to be unacceptable is because we realize how illogical the thoughts are. The idea that all of the people in one race are superior to all of the people in another race, simply because of the color of their skin, is completely without any supporting evidence and intelligent people of any walk of life will recognize them as having no value and being offensive. Most people also recognize that, while it is healthy to allow free speech, the hate speech of racists is itself harmful to society.
The words of climate change deniers has now reached that same point. There is no logic or scientific evidence to support their claims and they are made merely for the sake of denigrating science. In other words, what global warming deniers say about climate science is exactly parallel to what racists say about other races.
Pure and simple, climate change deniers are engaging in hate speech.
Just like in the case of R.A.V vs St Paul, their actions are reprehensible, but are allowed under the Constitution. However, we as a society have a responsibility to stand up to these hateful people and label them for what they are. It is healthy to allow that our Constitution allows them to say the things they do, but it is unhealthy for society to let them do it without condemning them.
I remember my grandmother telling me of how she had a separate set of glasses she used to take water and lemonade out to the help working in the yard. She kept these separate from the other glasses because, as she said, “No white person would ever drink out of a glass after a black man used it.”
Where are you going to stand on the subject? And, how do you want your children and grandchildren to remember your stand?