Although no widely recognized definition of the term hate speech yet exists, its traditional interpretation included any form of expression that any racial, religious, ethnic, or national group found offensive.
This definition broadened in the 1980s to include groups based or age, gender, sexual preference, marital status, and physical ability. Most commonly, hate speech involves racial and ethnic slurs when referring to the members of a group. Other examples may include jokes that demeanor ridicule a particular group or speeches by members of organizations, such as the Ku Klux Klan or the Christian Identity Church, that demonize groups such as blacks, Jews, or Hispanics by depicting them as animals or subhumans.
Most nations have laws that restrict offensive speech, including words targeted at vulnerable groups. Germany and France, for example, prohibit many expressions of hate. The German statutes, introduced after World War II, prohibit many Nazi symbols as well as statements of Holocaust denial. More recently, expansions of legal restrictions on speech include a much broader ban on various forms and targets of hate speech.
By contrast, the United States has a tradition of safeguarding individual rights as codified in a constitutional amendment protecting freedom of expression. U.S. courts have consistently found that hate speech, while extremely offensive, does not violate the First Amendment. In 1992, in a widely cited decision, R.A.V. v. the City of St. Paul, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a local community ordinance prohibiting cross burning was unconstitutional, because it interfered with expressions of free speech. Moreover, unlike most other countries, the United States has powerful advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, whose mandate requires that it assist in preserving the First Amendment. As a result, American popular culture is free to be as hate-filled and offensive as its producers wish. Hate speech continues to be heard in both Europe and America, so one approach is no more effective than the other.
Late in the 1980s hate speech became a concern on U.S. college campuses, resulting in codes of student conduct at many universities. By prohibiting expressions of hate on increasingly diverse college campuses, these codes sought to encourage an environment conducive to learning. Challenges by civil rights organizations and local groups of faculty and students led to the repeal or nonimplementation of most codes. However, they did increase awareness of the potential injury expressions of hate can inflict on an entire community.
The American Civil Liberties Union and many other concerned groups reached consensus about ways to react to hate speech. These organizations believe that hate speech is wrong; but they also believe that prohibiting hate speech is just as wrong. As an alternative, they recommend that people of goodwill confront hate speech not with silence but with speech articulating tolerance and respect for differences. If a racist group holds a rally in a town, the members of that community should sponsor a larger and louder rally in another venue denouncing racism. When dealing with individual expressions of hate or bias, proponents of tolerance cite the necessity of letting bigots know that their hate speech is offensive. On a one-to-one basis, this may be difficult to do, but it may be the most effective way to foster change in individuals who are unaware that their words are hurtful.
- Boeckman, Robert J. and Jeffrey Liew. 2002. “Hate Speech: Asian American Students’ Justice Judgments and Psychological Responses.” Journal of Social Issues 58(2):363-81.
- Cowan, Gloria, Miriam Resendez, Elizabeth Marshall, and Ryan Quist. 2002. “Hate Speech and Constitutional Protection: Priming Values of Equality and Freedom.” Journal of Social Issues 58(2):247-63.
- Leets, Laura. 2002. “Experiencing Hate Speech: Perceptions and Responses to Anti-Semitism and Antigay Speech.” Journal of Social Issues 58(2):341—61.
- Levin, Jack and Jack McDevitt. 2002. Hate Crimes Revisited: America’s War on Those Who Are Different. Boulder, CO: Westview.
- A.V. v. City of St. Paul, Minnesota. 1992. 505 U.S. 377. Walker, Samuel. 1966. Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.
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