In George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 the ruling totalitarian government created Newspeak to control the thoughts, speech, and actions of the citizenry. It was “designed to diminish the range of thought.” Newspeak, as a literary device, is a clear warning against the government’s censorship of speech. Newspeak not only prohibits speech, but it compels individuals to use “correct” speech. Plainly, it is a means of control.
I thought of Orwell’s novel when I saw headlines that New York City has now banned people from using the term “illegal alien,” the correct legal term used in both U.S. Code and by multiple federal agencies. Both The Hill and CNN report that new guidelines from the NYC Commission on Human Rights fine individuals who use the term “with intent to demean, humiliate or harass a person.”
The political battle over the phrase “illegal alien” is not new. In a comment to the Library of Congress, my organization FAIR argued that maintaining correct terminology is important. The concluding remarks of that 2016 comment read, “The semantic wrangling over the term ‘illegal alien’ goes beyond whether particular words are proper to use… Referring to an illegal alien as an ‘undocumented immigrant,’ or any other such euphonious alternative is, ultimately, the denial that a foreigner is in the United States in violation of the law. This is the first step in denying the American people the right to determine who is admitted into their country and under what conditions.”
In the context of New York’s new guidelines, flippantly saying “illegal alien” on the streets of New York is not against the law. These new guidelines instead place an additional fine for using it in the pursuit of actions that are already illegal, such as unlawful profiling, workplace harassment, and extortion. But it represents an attempt to force individuals to self-censor regardless. Extreme forms of workplace harassment are already illegal – harassing a coworker by calling them an “illegal alien” now carries additional penalties.
The largest city in the United States, and one of the country’s most egregious sanctuary jurisdictions, is trying to police private speech because city bureaucrats dislike it. The Commission provided numerous examples of interactions that it would consider illegal. One includes a shop owner berating a customer to speak English. Another includes hurtful remarks from an individual’s co-workers to “go back to where you came from.” Harassment, certainly – but these actions now carry an additional punishment because New York City is choosing to normalize illegal immigrants as a unique and protected class.
Are such remarks mean or even cruel? Certainly. Should the city government step in to prevent individuals from saying nasty things? Absolutely not. People say cruel, mean, and hurtful comments daily. But at the end of the day, in a free society, it is not the government’s role to go around policing speech and punishing people for saying mean – even intentionally cruel – things.
Further, New York City’s new may violate the First Amendment, as the Heritage Foundation’s Hans von Spakovsky argues. The Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment protects private offensive speech. As recently as 2017, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in Matal v. Tam that “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”
Nevertheless, the city of New York has no business telling individuals what they can and cannot say to each other. Why does the city care if a private business owner acts boorishly by asking a customer to speak English? There are already laws on the books against needless harassment. The policing of speech, in the hope of changing private behavior, is tantamount to bureaucratic mission creep.
New York City has loudly and proudly declared itself a sanctuary for illegal aliens. The city’s government already refuses to cooperate with ICE to identify and remove criminal illegal aliens. Now, they are leveling additional penalties on people for calling someone an illegal alien, or for other acts that “demean” aliens. The city already has the tools to combat everyday harassment. The new Commission for Human Rights guidelines target free speech that its bureaucrats don’t like.
Newspeak is alive and well in the Big Apple.