Hate Speech

Hate speech is talk that attacks an individual or a specific group based on a protected attribute such as the target’s sexual orientation, gender, religion, disability, color, or country of origin. Some countries consider hate speech to be a crime, because it encourages discrimination, intimidation, and violence toward the group or individual being targeted.

Hate speech has been a topic of debate for those who argue that any attempt to curtail someone’s expression of ideas amounts to an infringement on his or her constitutionally protected freedom of speech. Others counter that hate speech does nothing but fuel the flames of violence and brutality. To explore this concept, consider the following hate speech definition.

Definition of Hate Speech


  1. Speech that is intended to offend, insult, intimidate, or threaten an individual or group based on a trait or attribute, such as sexual orientation, religion, color, gender, or disability.

What is Hate Speech

Hate speech is spoken words that are offensive, insulting, and/or threatening to an individual or group based on a particular attribute of that person or persons being targeted. Targeted attributes include such traits as ethnic background, sexual orientation, race, or disability, though there are other target attributes. In the U.S., another term for hate speech is “fighting words,” as such talk is likely to provoke an otherwise reasonable person into acting rashly against speaker doing the provoking.

Unfortunately, defending freedom of speech means defending any and all speech equally, even that which may be regarded as unbearably offensive. Examples of hate speech include name-calling and racial slurs, though occasionally symbols like the swastika and burning crosses are called into question as to whether or not they are truly examples of hate speech, or if they are nothing more than symbols that are given a negative connotation from the situation in which they are used.

Hate Speech vs. Free Speech

Modern times have seen Americans staunchly protective of their First Amendment right to free speech, believing that the government should only intervene in extreme cases, and just as many people wondering where free speech stops and hate speech begins. On the other hand, “fighting words” are, according to many, a good reason for the government to get involved and place a limit on how far someone can go with their speech.

In the debate over hate speech vs. free speech, many Americans express a concern that the number-one priority should be the well-being of the community, and that a person’s right to freedom of speech can and should be limited, if it poses a threat to that community’s well-being.

Hate Speech Laws in Other Countries

With the advent of social media, the issue of offensive and threatening speech has become a global problem. Just as the U.S. is struggling to determine where free speech goes too far, hate speech laws in other countries are evolving. Examples of hate speech laws in other countries include:

  • Japan – Japan’s laws protect its citizens from threats and slander. However, derogatory comments directed at general groups of individuals remain unrestricted in Japan. Despite global calls for hate speech to be criminalized, Japan claims that hate speech has never reached such a point as to warrant legal action.
  • United Kingdom – Hate speech is widely criminalized in the U.K. Communications that are abusive, threatening, or insulting, or which target someone based on his race, religion, sexual orientation, or other attribute, are forbidden. Penalties for hate speech in the U.K. include fines and imprisonment.
  • Sweden – Hate speech, defined as public statements made to threaten or disrespect groups based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, or skin color, is prohibited in Sweden. Constitutional restrictions determine which acts are and are not criminal, as do limits imposed by the European Convention on Human Rights.
  • Ireland – While Ireland’s constitution guarantees the right to free speech, there is an understanding that freedom of expression will not be abused to “undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.” Further, the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989 defines threatening or abusive speech or behavior as that which is likely to inspire hatred against a group of individuals based on their race, color, religion, or other attribute.
  • India – While freedom of speech and expression are protected under India’s constitution, “reasonable restrictions” can be imposed in order to maintain the “sovereignty and integrity of India,” as well as the country’s safety and its relations with other countries. Freedom of speech and expression may also come under fire in India with regard to offenses such as contempt of court, and defamation.
  • Canada – Advocating for genocide in Canada against any “identifiable group” (any group that can be identified by their race, religion, sexual orientation, or other attribute) is a criminal offense that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison, with no minimum sentence. It is also a criminal offense to provoke hatred against an identifiable group

Hate Speech Examples in Legal Cases

There are several hate speech examples in legal cases over the years that have dealt squarely with the issue of whether or not the accused’s right to freedom of speech had been violated. A few of these landmark cases are outlined below.

Criminal Charges Enhanced by Hate Speech

In October of 1989, a group of young black men were hanging out in front of their apartment complex, discussing the movie Mississippi Burning, in which a number of black people are beaten. As a young white boy walked past the complex, and Todd Mitchell, one of the group, called out “Do you all feel hyped up to move on some white people?” then said, “There goes a white boy; go get him!” and led his friends in an attack on the boy. The black men stole the boy’s tennis shoes, and beat him so badly that he was in a coma for four days.

Mitchell was convicted on charges of aggravated battery in the Circuit Court, but because the jury ruled he had chosen the victim based solely on race, the crime was elevated to the level of a hate crime. In this case, Mitchell’s words were intended to incite violence against a person, based on a trait or attribute – his race. Although Mitchell appealed his conviction, claiming the conviction violated his right to free speech.

The question of constitutionality in this case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993, which held that the First Amendment does not bar the use of a person’s speech as evidence to establish elements of a crime. In fact, such evidence is commonly used to prove a defendant’s intent or motive, as well as to determine relevancy of certain evidence, or reliability of a witness’ testimony. The crime in Mitchell’s case was aggravated battery, not the words that he spoke, which provoked his companions to engage in the crime. Therefore, Mitchell’s free speech rights were never impeded.

Ruling on Swastika as Hate Speech

The case referred to as the “Skokie affair” dealt with the swastika symbol in particular and determined that the symbol itself is protected by the First Amendment, that it is an expression of free speech and that, as a symbol, it does not, by itself, embody the idea of “fighting words,” or hate speech. The case came about in 1977 when Frank Collin, the leader of the National Socialist Party of America, announced that the party was planning a march through Skokie, Illinois – a predominantly Jewish community where as many as one in six citizens living in the town was either a Holocaust survivor, or immediately related to one.

The Circuit Court of Cook County, Illinois issued an injunction upon the group, prohibiting them from wearing Nazi uniforms, and from openly displaying swastikas during their march. The ACLU challenged the injunction, arguing that it violated the marchers’ First Amendment rights. In the end, the Supreme Court agreed, and the group was permitted to march.

Free Speech or Hate Speech at Soldier’s Funeral

Westboro Baptist Church earned itself a reputation for pushing the boundaries of what constitutes free speech. In a typical example of the group’s use of hate speech, The Westboro Baptist Church picketed the 2011 military funeral of a soldier who was killed in Iraq. The father of the soldier sued Fred Phelps and his church for intentional infliction of emotional distress after the group protested his son’s funeral with signs that carried such messages as “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates the USA/Thank God for 9/11.”

Ultimately, Phelps and his church prevailed, as the Supreme Court ruled that the church was expressing their discontent with “matters of public concern,” rather than outright targeting the soldier and his family directly. So while the church’s messages may be considered hate speech by the majority, the Court noted that it had to take into account all of the details of the situation in order to issue a proper ruling, which included what was said, where it was said, and how it was said. Considering all of these elements together changes the landscape of the issue at hand.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Aggravated Battery – Battery in which serious bodily harm occurs, or in which the perpetrator intended to cause serious harm, often involving a hate crime, or battery against a police officer.
  • Discrimination – The practice of unfairly treating different categories of people, especially on the grounds of ethnicity, national origin, gender, race, religion, and sexual orientation.
  • Racial Slur – A derogatory, insulting, or disrespectful nickname for a person’s race.
  • Slander – An intentional false statement that harms a person’s reputation, or which decreases the respect or regard in which a person is held.

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