On Tuesday evening, Fox News pundit Bill O'Reilly had fellow Fox anchor John Stossel on The O'Reilly Factor. The two discussed the story of street preacher Tony Miano, who was arrested in London on June 7 for using homophobic language in a public place. O'Reilly and Stossel debated the extent to which hate speech should be punishable by law. O'Reilly came out in favor of illegality, saying that it "should be against the law" for a preacher to "[get] in a gay man's face" and say he's "going to Hell."
The issue of hate speech is particularly nuanced because while it is imperative to protect every citizen from unwanted assault, it's equally necessary to preserve the same citizenry's right to free speech. The challenge is figuring out exactly where to draw the line, and in this case, I think O'Reilly has it right.
It's important to note that O'Reilly, when proposing the illegality of hate speech, wasn't referring to the example of Miano, but rather a hypothetical scenario he created that included invasion of personal space and "intentional" badgering. O'Reilly agrees that Miano's arrest was a bit too much, and seems to agree with Miano who said that it was "very distressing to be arrested and interrogated for openly expressing my deeply held Christian beliefs."
The issue is not what is said so much as how it is said. Yes, the use of homophobic language in a public place is ignorant and reprehensible, but that doesn't mean it should be a punishable offense. The right to free speech protects even the most distasteful language. As Stossel argued, speech should only become illegal when it includes blatant "fighting words" intended to "incite violence." What exactly are "fighting words?" Like the issue of pornography, they're not exactly definable, but you'll know them when you hear them.
Miano, it seems, did not intend to cause harm or "incite violence" with his words. He was simply expressing his beliefs, however wrong or objectionable they may be. But with O'Reilly's hypothetical in which an individual instigates conflict with another, the expression of beliefs crosses the line into illegal hate speech. It's crucial to protect the rights of everyone involved, so long as no harm occurs.
This isn't the first time O'Reilly has criticized opponents of gay marriage and users of homophobic language. As unreasonable as some of his opinions may be, he seems to have a decent grasp on this issue in particular — hateful speech becomes illegal when it crosses the boundary into assault. Before that, it's just an ignorant opinion.