How to Handle Hate Speech

In most countries other than the USA, hate speech is a crime. In fact, in Germany you can end up spending five years in prison for hate speech. The United States has a long history of trying to deal with this type of speech, and currently there are pretty tight restrictions on criminal punishments for it. However, that has not stopped the debate about whether it should be protected under the First Amendment or not.

If you do not know what qualifies, it is “speech or expression that denigrates a person or persons on the basis of (alleged) membership in a social group identified by attributes such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, physical or mental disability, and others.” It typically involves stereotypes, slurs, and speech intended to incite hatred of certain groups.

Now you may be thinking that it should obviously be punishable because it causes so much harm, but unfortunately it is not that simple.

There are countless arguments for why hate speech should not be protected, most of which argue that it enables discrimination. In an article for The Washington Post, Richard Stengel spoke for many when he said, “All speech is not equal. And where truth cannot drive out lies, we must add new guardrails. I’m all for protecting “thought that we hate,” but not speech that incites hate. It undermines the very values of a fair marketplace of ideas that the First Amendment is designed to protect.”

Those who are opposed to regulated hate speech cite that censorship can only cause more harm and lead to the suppression of other legitimate expression. They also believe that allowing hateful speech makes the rest of us aware of terrible beliefs and therefore allows us to combat them.

Although it would be nice to live in a world without hate speech, I recognize that that is simply not possible. It may not be right or possible to pass laws that make all hate speech punishable, but there definitely needs to be a change in how it is dealt with. My opinion veers more towards that of Anthony Lewis. In his novel Freedom for the Thought That We Hate, he says that we should punish speech that urges terrorists violence to an audience, some of whose members are ready to act on the urging.

That may sound like something that is unprotected speech that can be punished, but it actually is not. It has to be an actual threat to be able to be punishable, and unfortunately that does not fall under that category.

Thus the question is, do we adopt laws similar to other countries that criminalizes hate speech? Or do we keep hate speech as protected under the First Amendment so then we know the beliefs we are up against?

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