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Hate speech

Hate speech refers to speech intended to hurt and intimidate someone because of their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability.

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There is considerable debate over whether hate speech ought to be regulated, and if so, how and by whom. These debates center on two critical questions: first, what is the force of speech? Is it the expression of personal thoughts, or is it a form of action that affects others? Second, is the free expression of hateful ideas necessary for healthy public debate, or is it harmful to public debate?

Legal aspects in the US

In the United States, the Congress is forbidden to limit free speech; jurists generally understand this to mean that the government cannot regulate the content of speech, but that it can sanction the harmful effects of speech through laws against slander and libel. Since such laws apply only to the victimization of specific individuals, some argue that hate speech must be regulated to protect members of groups. Others argue that hate speech limits the free development of political discourse and ought to be regulated, but by voluntaristic communities and not by the state.

Speech codes

Various institutions in the United States and Europe began developing codes to limit or punish hate speech in the 1990s, on the grounds that such speech amounts to discrimination. Thus, such codes prohibit words or phrases deemed to express, either deliberately or unknowingly, hatred or contempt towards a group of people, based on areas such as their ethnic, cultural, religious or sexual identity, or with reference to physical or mental heath.

It may also in some contexts challenge the rights of individuals based on any or all of the above criteria. In many countries, deliberate use of 'hate speech' is a criminal offence prohibited under incitement to hatred legislation. Such prohibitions have parallels with earlier prohibitions on such issues as obscenity and blasphemy, which are or were also presecutable offences. In addition to legal prohibition in many jurisdictions, prohibition of the use of hate speech has been written into the bylaws of some governmental and non-governmental institutions such as public universities, trades unions and other organisations (see below). Its use is also frowned upon by many publishing houses, broadcasting organisations and newspaper groups.

Justification for laws controlling or prohibiting hate speech

Proponents of limitations on hate speech argue that repeated instances of hate speech do more than express ideas or expresses dissent; rather, hate speech often promotes and results in fear, intimidation[?] and harassment of individuals.

It is argued that historically hate speech has resulted in murder and even genocide of those it is targeted against. Examples cited include the rhetoric used by Adolf Hitler and German Nazis, which led to attacks on the jewish community within the Third Reich, leading to the mass extermination of millions of jews, Poles and homosexuals in concentration camps in the 1940s.

Arguments against legal restrictions

There are a number of arguments suggested against the prohibition of hate speech:

  • That prohibiting hate speech interferes with the right of free expression and free discussion of opinions, a key right in modern democracies, particularly in the media. (The United States constitution expressly protects freedom of the press.)

  • That even if used, hate speech does not necessarily lead to actions, and that where actions are carried out, the speaker of those words cannot be held responsible for the actions of others. Critics of this position hold that such a position is untenable, in that it depends on denying what they argue are historical truths, i.e. that hate speech in practice sometimes is used to incite murder and genocide.

  • Prohibiting hate speech does nothing to change the ideas that give rise to the opinions behind the 'offensive' terms. In this view, it is agreed that hate speech may be dangerous and should not exist, but that one should not end it by legal action, but by debate and discussion. Critics of this position hold that such a position is untenable, in that it depends on the presumed goodwill of those purveying hate speech, and it assumes without proof that one can avoid incitement to murder and genocide by discussion alone.

  • In some cases it is held that prohibiting hate speech is part of a campaign of political correctness intended to censor any expression of that idea altogether. This is a complex issue, as in such cases the term hate speech' is being applied not to incitement for hatred or murder, but rather to much lesser offences.

Differing concepts of what is offensive

A central aspect of the hate speech debate is that concepts of what is acceptable and unacceptable differ, depending on eras in history and one's cultural and religious background. For example, personalised criticism of homosexuality and the belief that it is 'immoral', based on a person's religious beliefs, are to some a valid expression of their values, to others an expression of homophobia and are therefore Homophobic hate speech. Prohibition in such cases is seen by some as an interference in their rights to express their beliefs. To others, such expression generates and promote anti-homosexual attitudes that cause hurt and distress, and potentially discrimination to members of the gay community.

Furthermore, words which once 'embodied' negative hate speech connotations, such as 'queer' or 'fag' against homosexuals, 'nigger' against people of African origin, have themselves been 'reclaimed' by their respective communities, who attached more positive meanings to the words, so undermining their value to those who wish to use them in a negative sense.

Concepts of what qualifies as hate speech broadened in the late twentieth century to include some views expressed from an ideological standpoint. For instance, some politically left-wing feminists refer to jokes about women or lesbians as hate speech. Not everyone accepts that there is a comparison between classic forms of hate speech, which were incitement to hate or even physically harm, and the use of language that some argue merely shows disrespect. Some politically right-wing radio-show hosts or commentators refer to liberal or left wing criticisms of right wing views as hateful, even though it is argued that there is no comparison to classic forms of hate speech. Supporters, however, argue that such comments demean and undermine the individuals and so should qualify as hate speech. Others refer to this political correctness, which some support and some dismiss, referring to "political correctness gone mad".

These political views cannot be reliably correlated with the traditional political spectrum; for example, in the United States, many liberals hold that free speech should be unrestricted, and some conservatives believe verbal discimination against religions, such as blasphemy, should be regulated.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution states, in part, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press".

Hate speech codes and censorship in academia

Some United States universities have speech codes that prohibit hate speech. These rules are intended to ensure an atmosphere free from harassment and intimidation, conducive to a learning environment. Many speakers have opposed such speech codes, claiming they constitute a new orthodoxy of political correctness that represents an erosion of the American commitment to freedom of speech, and-- when implemented in government-funded institutions-- the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Some observers believe that the accusation of hate speech is often made to suppress points of view which are unfavorable to certain "protected groups", which represents a significant infringement of the tradition of academic freedom and gives members of these groups an unfair advantage in the marketplace of ideas.

For example, for a college professor to say, "Lesbians should not be schoolteachers," could be considered hate speech. The professor could be denied tenure, even if he were expressing his religiously-based belief that homosexuals should not be put in positions where they can influence young people. Underlying such a claim is the belief that homosexuals in positions of influence over young people might influence their sexuality. Opponents would argue that the underlying theory behind the words suggests a false understanding of the nature of human sexuality with their usage designed to promote fear of homosexuals and their supposed influence on children among non-homosexuals, so leading to hatred of, and discrimination against, homosexuals.

He could offer the defense that he doesn't hate lesbians and didn't intend to hurt anyone's feelings, but was expressing his genuinely held beliefs based on religious convictions. In such circumstances, the consequences of his comment could lead to his facing disciplinary action. Some would judge such actions as an unfair restriction on his beliefs and freedom of expression. Othes would see it as upholding the principle of attacking discrimination and hatred.

See also: profanity, taboo, hate crime

Examples of hate speech

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