What rights do people have to hate speech?Jerold belongs to an online hate group. He frequently posts hateful racist and sexist comments on the message board. Jerold feels it is his right to free...

What rights do people have to hate speech?

Jerold belongs to an online hate group. He frequently posts hateful racist and sexist comments on the message board. Jerold feels it is his right to free speech to be able to say these things. He never says these things in person to any other person but feels that should he have the desire to, he is fully within his rights to say whatever he wants to, regardless of whether it is hateful and racist.


Expert Answers
Ashley Kannan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is a very timely and pertinent issue relating to the freedom of speech.  Indeed, the situation with Jerold exhibits a very interesting situation within the context of freedom of speech parameters.  The First Amendment envelopes one of the most fundamental and basic rights within society, the ability to freely express oneself without government regulation or limitation.  The Framers created this notion of freedom of speech to ensure that individuals would not be censored or have their ability of expression limited by government.  In their wisdom, they understood that the notion of personal expression would reflect harmonious melodies for some and dissonant nasal shrill for others.  Regardless, this speech and expression is protected within the First Amendment.  Government cannot stop Jerold from speaking spiteful and horrific comments.  Where the limitations on free speech are present is that if the expressed thoughts create a harm to public safety.  In your example, Jerold can spew venomous thoughts about whatever as it exists within his boundaries of free speech and personal expression.  However, if it is evident or can be proven that his speech has incited others to action, or that his speech has constituted a harm to the public, and that his speech represents a "clear and present danger" to other individuals, it no longer is free speech.  This standard was most famously articulated in the ideas of Justice Holmes who also suggested that the most strict protection of free speech would not permit from "yelling 'fire' in a crowded theatre, thereby causing a panic."  It is no longer free speech because Jerold's right to expression has impeded another individual's notion of speech or expression.  While Jerold can speak what he wishes, the Framers created the freedom of expression to be a sober responsibility where individuals should judiciously assess the potential harmful nature of their words.  The Framers did not intend the First Amendment to be some type of free pass or universal blanket that covers any horrific speech which target individuals or acts "as a loaded weapon" that inspires people to cruel ends.  The Constitution does not permit this as free speech.  Jerold can speak what he wishes, but if his words cross that elusive line from individual expression to seeking to initiate action in fulfillment of that speech, then it is no longer free speech but punishable action.

Two closing points to be made, as well.  Initially, the First Amendment was carved out in the notion of protecting both public expression and private retreat.  This notion of positive liberty (the right to act with free autonomy as an active agent in one's own world) and negative liberty (the right to be left alone from external intrusion) is implicit in the First Amendment.  Speech that takes away from one's negative liberty is not free speech, as it is intrusive.  Essentially, Jerrold's right to free speech ends at another individual's nose.  His free speech does not take away from another's ability to express oneself.  The second point is the that free speech standard cuts both ways.  It can be presumed that the website or chat room management can deem that Jerrold's speech is harmful, and as a private agency can take down his comments.  Their exercise of free speech is just as valid as Jerrold's.

krishna-agrawala | Student

Though the main question is followed an example of Jerold, the question is primarily about legal status of hate speech. Therefore I will focus on the main issue of hate speech and right to freedom of speech.

There are no laws anywhere in the world to hate anyone, but when it comes to hate speech - that is giving expression to your hate in public - there are definitely legal restrictions on what you say. These legal provisions are not designed to restrict your freedom of speech, but to ensure that you do not violate the rights of other people to their dignity, reputation and privacy.

Though it appears quite a good idea to make spreading of lies illegal, unfortunately, there are no laws against spreading lies as such. Perhaps this is better this way because of the dangers of allowing official machinery to decide what is a lie and what is not.

However, lies that malign people, hurt them emotionally, or damage their public image are clear candidates to attract legal restrictions.

In addition to lies, all type of speech - lies or truth - attracts legal restriction when it violates rights of individual to privacy and leads to hatred between people on grounds such as cast, creed, religion, and nationality.

In addition, there are also restriction on indecent speech.

It will be useful to clarify one more point here - leaving messages on message board is a public communication, and will attract all the provisions of law applicable to any public communication.