Hanging a noose has been a symbolic expression of hatred towards blacks since the days of the Ku Klux Klan. However, noose incidents have increased substantially over the last year, prompting some states to pass hate-crime style laws against it. According to DiversityInc,
To date, three states have passed laws to punish those who use nooses as a means to intimidate. Connecticut and New York passed laws in May, with prison sentences ranging from a year in Connecticut to four years in New York. Earlier this month, Louisiana, the state where thousands of protestors marched in support of the Jena 6, became the third state to pass such a law. So far, no one has been sentenced under these new laws….
Louisiana’s law makes hanging a noose, or an image of one, on another person’s property or on public property with “the intent to intimidate” illegal and punishable by up to $5,000 and up to a year in prison.
Lawmakers in Florida, Maryland, Missouri and North Carolina are considering similar legislation.
There is no doubt that the noose is associated with racial bigotry and intimidation and those who display it to show their lack of regard for others deserve contempt. But do they deserve legal action?
As Mike Riggs points out,
The noose’s negative cultural significance is not sufficient justification to ban it on public property. Why is a group of hicks waving images of a noose—or actual nooses—in the middle of a public park any less deserving of 1st Amendment protection than thousands of Ku Klux Klan members staging a rally on main street? Afterall, in order to allow groups like the Klan to march, cities must be able to differentiate between a protest rally and a mob hell-bent on peforming a lynching. That same rubric should be applied to displays of nooses on public property.
I have similar views on the matter. Expressions of contempt or hatred, provided they are undertaken in a non-violent manner, are consitutionally protected in the USA; there is no need to make an exception for nooses. Of course, if the noose is merely a precursor to an actual lynching or violence, the law has to step in. That would however be true for any similar act that does not involve nooses; as Riggs points out, cities ought to be able to differentiate between the two cases.
The greatness of the First Amendment lies in its absoluteness. Other countries that had incorporated weaker versions of free speech protection, — i.e. with caveats — were ultimately left with no real free speech at all. As I have often pointed out, it is only speech that offends that requires government protection. Recent events in Canada and Europe have amply displayed the chilling effects of hate-crimes legislation.
Notwithstanding the offense-quotient of nooses, banning them, even on public property, does much more harm than good. Offensive or false speech is best countered by forcefully articulating the opposite point of view. It took a long time for mankind to realise the most important truth; let us not go back to the dark ages.