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The Legalities Of Hate Speech

Often discussed on a variety of platforms, hate speech and the legalities associated with it can be a hotly debated topic. Hate speech is loosely defined by laypersons as any offensive speech targeted toward people based on race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. Opinions about how such speech should be handled by legal authorities vary. Few seem to be familiar with the actual legalities of hate speech, and it is not uncommon for it to be confused with other crimes where hatred is believed to be a motivating factor.

Which Laws Govern Hate Speech?

In the United States, there are no laws against hate speech. Due to rights protected by the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, a person can say just about anything he or she wants to another person or group. By itself, such speech is allowed to take place without penalty under the law.

A person hurling insults, making rude statements, or disparaging comments about another person or group is merely exercising his or her right to free speech. This is true even if the person or group targeted by the speaker is a member of a protected class. According to U.S. law, such speech is fully permissible and is not defined as hate speech.

Under the First Amendment, American citizens have the legal right to say whatever they’d like to. While much ado is often made about so-called “hate speech”, no satisfactory definition for this type of speech exists within the confines of the law. Not to be confused with “hate crimes,” a person’s speech does not affect another person’s physical condition or personal property and is, therefore, not punishable by law.

Are There Any Exceptions?

There really aren’t any exceptions to this rule, but there are accompanying circumstances which can lead to a crime. For example, harsh words can feel threatening, and such a threat may result in criminal charges. Depending on the jurisdiction where the threat takes place, charges can range from a terrorist threat to harassment to criminal assault.

For example, a person who makes bigoted statements while threatening bodily harm to a person of the Muslim faith can be charged with a crime. Charges would not be brought about simply due to any insulting language used, but charges may be applied because it is illegal to make threats against a person. For the same reasons, this would also include inciting violence against a group being discriminated against. Again, it is not the speech that is deemed to be illegal, but rather what the speech is threatening or encouraging others to do.

It should further be noted that individuals employed by the Federal Government are not allowed to discriminate against any members of a protective class. Therefore, any speech representing hostility or disdain for a member of a protected class, may not be illegal but may result in the dismissal of the employee making such statements.

Members of a protected class are identified by:

  • Age (applies primarily to those aged 40 years and above)
  • Sex
  • Race
  • Religion
  • Handicap (whether visibly apparent or not)
  • Veteran status
  • Country of origin (this includes a person’s citizenship status)

If allegations of hateful speech are proven, a person found guilty of discriminating against one of the above groups would not be legally charged with hateful speech but could be declared guilty of discrimination and summarily dismissed from work.

Should Hate Speech Be Illegal?

A 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case ruled it was perfectly legal for Clarence Brandenburg, a Ku Klux Klan member in Ohio, to speak in favor of violence toward minorities as long as he was not directly encouraging people to engage in violence or other activities that were against the law. So, while the court did not deem his speech to have broken the law, a line was drawn between speech supporting or favoring violence and speech that actually directly incites violence. The former is protected by law, but the latter is an actual crime.  

In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Westboro Baptist Church being punished by way of a civil judgment for actions many Americans deemed to be hateful. The church based in Topeka, Kansas, is known for showing up at the funerals of gay people and others whose lifestyles the church vehemently opposes, taunting and ridiculing grieving loved ones at the funeral services. They accomplish this by picketing outside with large signs displaying hateful rhetoric, as well as by shouting slurs and insults, and even by giving provocative media interviews using language mimicking what is displayed on their signs. Despite the public’s demands for local law enforcement to stop Westboro Baptist Church from spewing such offensive language and ideas, the Supreme Court insists that their right to free speech is fully protected under the law.

Some Americans have advocated in favor of the creation of hate speech laws. Resistance to the adoption of such stems from a failure to clearly define what hate speech actually is, though. Activists have also been challenged to clearly separate hate speech from free speech without infringing on a person’s right to the latter.

While the United States Constitution can be amended as it has been many times before, no one has yet been able to solve the difficulty of doing so as it applies to hate speech. Doing so would require taking away a person’s right to free speech. A single and solid definition of hate speech, which does not violate the First Amendment, continues to be difficult for courts to accept and probably will be for some time to come.

The Role of Hate Speech in Hate Crimes

A person’s speech can be used against them in establishing the occurrence of a hate crime. In some cases, it can be argued that a person’s offensive speech is literal evidence of a certain type of crime. For example, if a person is repeatedly called a racial slur, no crime has been committed. However, if the person is then assaulted by the person making those slurs, it can be argued that disdain for the person’s racial identity served as a motive for the crime against them as evidenced by the language used preceding or during the assault. If the assailant was found to be guilty and it is proven that their actions were motivated by bigotry, the offender could be charged with a hate crime.

Making sense of the difference between hate speech and hate crimes hearkens back to early childhood when we all learned about sticks and stones. Actions causing harm to person or property are a crime. Name-calling and degrading speech are not. Unless or until speech directly encourages or includes harm to a person’s body or property, it is protected as an American right.

Beyond the U.S.: Hate Speech Vs. Free Speech

Outside of the U.S., countries like Austria and Germany have strict laws against hate speech. Certain Neo-Nazi groups have found ways around anti-hate speech laws in those countries when it comes to disseminating information on the Internet. Using servers based in the United States, these groups have created websites filled with hateful rhetoric. Such sites would be illegal if associated with servers based in their home countries, but as they exist on American servers, they are completely protected by the First Amendment.

Russian citizens, in particular, have struggled with differentiating free speech from hateful speech. In less than a decade, multiple laws have passed making it difficult for Russian citizens to speak publicly, especially via social media, about any discontent with the country’s government or even with certain religious authorities, such as the Russian Orthodox Church. While Russia’s Constitution shuns censorship and claims to protect freedom of thought and expression, those espousing critical viewpoints may be subject to a fine, community service or prison.

Hate Speech is Perfectly Legal

To hate a person or group is not a crime in America. To voice one’s hatred is not a crime, either. Hate speech is very difficult to separate from mere opinion, and without a definition everyone can agree upon, words and statements may be interpreted by some as offensive while others may find the exact same speech perfectly acceptable and cite one’s freedom of expression.

If you still have questions about hate speech, including how it may be used in determining a hate crime, you may read more about the First Amendment or consult a civil rights attorney in your area.


This article contains general legal information but does not constitute professional legal advice for your particular situation. The Law Dictionary is not a law firm, and this page does not create an attorney-client or legal adviser relationship. If you have specific questions, please consult a qualified attorney licensed in your jurisdiction.

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