Free Speech, Hate Speech, and Equality of Citizens



On October 23, 1998, abortionist Dr. Barnett Slepian, was shot and killed by a sniper’s bullet. The sniper in question was part of the radical pro-life contingency in the United States. Bill Baird, another abortionist, had his own clinic fire bombed. When holding a news conference afterwards, he stated, “I fault publicly the Roman Catholic Church, the Right to Life people, and all anti-abortion forces who use the rhetoric ‘baby murderer, killer, devil’ which creates a climate that turns loose lunatics like this (qtd in Scott 9).” The interesting part of Baird’s statement is not his obvious contempt for pro-life advocates; rather it is his contention that their hate “rhetoric” is responsible for building a climate of fear and inequality. Baird was accusing the pro-life side of what we now commonly call “hate speech.” Hate speech could be defined as speech that denigrates individuals based upon race, gender, ethnic status, or sexual orientation. Liberal democracies have increasingly found it difficult as to what the appropriate response to hate speech should be. This arises out of the longstanding liberal tradition of free speech. Freedom of speech would seem to be in conflict here with the other liberal tradition of equality of citizenry. Whether to regulate speech in certain contextual arenas, especially universities, or in society as a whole, have become violent issues of discussion. In the Baird example, society would have to decide upon what is more valuable, the right of women to have abortions in a safe and harassment free arena, or the rights of pro-life critics to voice their opinions. The actions have varied, with some states and provinces creating “bubble-zone laws” used to limit pro-life protest. These issues are very controversial, because inevitably someone or group will be disenfranchised and silenced. Three views on hate speech laws seem to be evident. Those who advocate for it, based on psychological harm and constructionist views, those against it from a civil libertarian perspective, and those sympathetic but against most speech codes based upon pragmatic or linguistic objections. All three will be examined for strengths, weaknesses and rationality.

Many people of differing ethnic or racial lineage are denigrated. Gays and Lesbians, as well as women, are also often targets of speech that inflicts harm. These forms of hate speech “treat their targets as moral subordinates on account of race, gender, or sexual preference (Altman 312).” This subordination is likened to psychological abuse. While physical abuse is obviously curtailed by existing laws, psychological abuse because of its slippery nature is not. Only in specific circumstances, such as the workplace is it curtailed, such as sexual or racial workplace harassment laws. However, in society as a whole, it is not a crime to use a racial or gender epitaph at people. For instance, if someone were to call a person of African origin a “nigger” on the street, many people would find it intensely immoral and distasteful, but that speech in no way would be considered illegal. Certain proponents of hate speech laws would consider the psychological abuse entailed in hate speech, the denigration of a person’s moral worth, to be adequate justification for its illegality. These proponents would view physical and psychological forms of harm as equal, not necessarily punishable in the same way. The harm principle is an important justification of hate speech law. Essentially, it functions within an individualist paradigm, limiting its understanding of hate to particular acts committed against individual members of the community. However, many advocates of hate speech laws recognize a structural element to hate speech that goes beyond the individual acts of hate speech.

Social constructionist accounts of hate speech are often stronger than the psychological harm principle elucidated earlier. Psychological harm is often a slippery concept. Psychological harm is often intensely personal and subjective. It is hard to codify or quantify. Because of its subjective nature, the psychological harm principle would be hard, if not impossible, to successfully implement in law. The constructionist position maintains that hate speech ritualizes and “facilitates unequal treatment of groups based on race, gender, and sexual preference (Calvert 6).” The very language of hate speech would seem to create a linguistic paradigm for the moral degradation of whole classes of people. Hate