Hate speech

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For more information, see: Free speech.

Hate speech is a complex and controversial aspect of expression, with different definitions and acceptance in different parts of the world. It is widely considered speech that attacks ethnicity, religion, gender or gender preference; political preference may or may not be considered within the definition. While much of the Western culture advocates freedom of speech, the United States, for historical and Constitutional reasons, has set a much higher standard for prohibiting speech than other democracies.

For example, Canada, unquestionably a liberal democracy, recognized a difference in the 1990 Keegstra case. Chief Justice Robert Dickson wrote,
"crucial to the disposition of this appeal: the relationship between Canadian and American approaches to the constitutional protection of free expression, most notably in the realm of hate propaganda...There is much to be learned from First Amendment jurisprudence." But he concluded that "the international commitment to eradicate hate propaganda and, most importantly, the special role given equality and multiculturalism in the Canadian Constitution necessitate a departure from the view, reasonably prevalent in America at present, that the suppression of hate propaganda is incompatible with the guarantee of free expression."[1]

Even in the U.S., not all speech is protected. In the 1942 Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire decision, the Supreme Court of the United States excepted what it called "fighting words" in a face-to-face situation. [2] There have been mixed decisions on speech judged to be intimidating or a direct incitement to violence.


Various international organizations struggle with the issue of defamation of religion. The Coalition to Defend Free Speech, an affiliate of very disparate U.S. groups, is opposed to a charge of "defamation of religions", introduced to the UN Human Rights Council by the Organization of the Islamic Conference in 1999.[3] The charge was introduced by Pakistan, entitled "Defamation of Islam".[4]

In the United Kingdom, the government attempted to outlaw incitement towards hatred on religious grounds in the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, which amended the Public Order Act 1986. This followed judicial decisions which stated that religious identity was very similar to racial identity, and that since incitement to racial hatred was banned, it would be desirable to ban incitement to religious hatred. The political motive was partly to prevent the nationalist British National Party from using religion as a cover for race or ethnicity - many accuse the BNP of using "Muslim" as a slur towards citizens with an Asian ethnic background, including Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians. Plenty of other people opposed the ban on 'religious hatred', including secularists as represented by the National Secular Society, evangelical Christians, writers like Salman Rushdie (and English PEN) and humorists like Rowan Atkinson. Some critics of the bill stated that it may even make the foundational texts of various religions including the Bible and Qur'an illegal as they often endorse "hatred against a group of people defined by reference to religious belief or lack of belief" - for example, when holy texts encourage followers to kill "infidels" (either non-believers or followers of other religions). The opponents of the bill managed to push the House of Lords to pass amendments to make it so that the legislation would target only those who are using words or behavior that is "threatening" and who has the intention to stir up religious hatred. The Government attempted afterwards to overturn these amendments but lost. This was taken by many as a weak point for the Government, especially as Prime Minister Tony Blair neglected to vote, even though there was eventually only a one-vote margin in favour of the amendment.


Historical as well as religious factors play a role in suppression of potentially offensive speech. Germany has strong restrictions about expression of Nazi ideas outside a strictly scholarly context. The German Constitutional Court has upheld Paragraph 4 of Article 130 of the German Penal Code, which provides for imprisonment for anyone who
approves of, glorifies or justifies the violent and despotic rule of the National Socialists" in a way that "disturbs the public peace in a manner that violates the dignity of the victims.[5]

Countering hate speech

While hate speech on the Internet may be distasteful,according to Christopher Wolf, Chair of the Anti-Defamation League Internet Task Force and Chair of the International Network Against Cyber Hate, "Laws addressed at Internet hate are perhaps the least effective way to deal with the problem, and create a sense of false security promoting inaction and under use of the other tools available to fight online hate." Wolf said there were cases, starting with specific incitement to violence at identifiable targets, where legal action is appropriate. He acknowledged special sensitivities, such as Germany with Nazi-themed material. Prosecuting David Irving, however, may simply bring him more publicity. Nevertheless, he sees counter-speech as the best weapon. [6]

Wolf also pointed out the technical limitations of legal enforcement in an international Internet. In another presentation, he differentiated among terroristic threats, use of the Internet for recruiting, and the problem of bullying. "Cyberbullying" can lead to psychological trauma including suicide, but it is a different phenomenon than extremist recruiting at a White nationalist site such as Stormfront,[7], or radical Islamist sites that have led to self-radicalization.

The conservative Cybercast News Service called the “The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act,” a threat to religious liberty, in that it could prevent religious organizations from discussing actions they consider sinful. “The very fact that this law elevates ‘sexual orientation’ and ‘gender identity’ to the same protected status as race – that in and of itself is a cataclysmic shift in policy,” said Mathew Staver, president of the religious liberty law firm Liberty Counsel and dean of the Liberty University Law School. Erik Stanley, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund said “It is actually a thought-crimes law. There is no difference between, say, an assault that is already punishable, and an assault that is punishable as a hate crime, other than the belief of the perpetrator.” [8]