In Defense of Alec Baldwin

by Charles C. W. Cooke

From Fox, news that I never wanted to read in America:

Alec Baldwin’s latest squabble with the media may have him in some serious hot water.

An NYPD rep told FOX 411 the 54-year-old actor is being investigated following an altercation he allegedly got into with a New York Post photographer.

“Our hate crimes task force is reviewing the case,” the rep said.

The Post reported the incident on Monday, in an article that detailed their staff’s side of the story.

The story claims reporter Tara Palmeri and photographer G.N. Miller approached Baldwin outside of his East Village residence in an attempt to get a comment from the actor about reports his pregnant wife, Hilaria Thomas, is being sued.

The duo said they encountered an angry Baldwin who told Palmeri “I want you to choke to death” and fired a racial slur at Miller, who is African American.

Miller, who is a retired NYPD detective, told police the actor called him a “coon,” a “drug dealer” and a “crackhead,” according to The Post.

If Baldwin did say these things, then he’s an awful human being and he deserves our strongest criticism. But as I’ve written repeatedly when covering such events in England, in a free society shouting rude and offensive things at people should not — nay cannot — be a crime. America has always been a welcome outlier on this issue, eschewing the doctrine that is so popular in the rest of the world that some words are just “too offensive” to be allowed, or that, as Fox put it, certain speech “is considered a hate crime when the victim is targeted because of his or her race, religion, age, national origin, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation.”

Such ideas are cancerous to liberty. If one has an unalienable right to speak that the state may not take away, why on earth should it matter whom one is criticizing? Why should it matter if what one says is dripping with hatred for a particular group? Why should it matter if one is wearing Nazi paraphernalia while one does it? Execrable as it is, awful speech is quite rightly protected and must be held as far away from the clutches of “hate speech task forces” as possible. Speech that offends nobody does not need protection.

Both as a philosophical and a practical matter, it does not do to allow the state to decide who may and who may not speak — nor to adjudicate what may and may not be said. Nor is it right in a free society to subdivide the actions of free men into groups on the basis of what they may have been thinking at the time. The very notion of a “hate crime” is insidious, striking a blow at the notion of equality under the law and introducing an unwelcome element of subjectivity into legal proceedings. Still reeling from his fatuous decision in Schenck v. United States ten years earlier, a contrite Oliver Wendell Holmes concurred, writing for the minority in United States v. Schwimmer that, 

if there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other it is the principle of free thought – not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought we hate.

We should hate the thoughts that Baldwin allegedly thought, and the words that he allegedly spoke. But we should not prosecute them, nor should we allow the state to decide what is hateful and what is beautiful. That is not its role. America should assiduously avoid the path that has been recently trodden by the Brits, in which country recent arrestees include Liam Stacey and James Perch, who wrote obnoxious and racist things about professional footballers on Twitter; five Muslims from Derby, who distributed leaflets that vehemently criticized homosexuality; and a host of others who were found guilty either of supporting the tenets of Bible in public — or of criticizing them. (I outlined my opposition to the British laws that enabled these prosecutions here.)

Discussing Mark Steyn’s Canadian ordeal in 2008, the New York Times noted in 2008 that:

In the United States, that debate has been settled. Under the First Amendment, newspapers and magazines can say what they like about minorities and religions — even false, provocative or hateful things — without legal consequence.

The article’s title? “Unlike Others, U.S. Defends Freedom to Offend in Speech.” One would hope so, and that such defenses apply to Alec Baldwin, too. As the Times observed, “there is only one justification for making incitement a criminal offense: the likelihood of imminent violence” — and that “imminence requirement sets a high hurdle.” Baldwin came nowhere near it, nor has it been suggested that he did. He assaulted nobody. He attempted nothing. He shouted very rudely at another person, that is all. He should never have been asked to account for himself. He must walk free.

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