June 15, 2018 1:57PM

Some Doubts about Hate Speech

Would hate speech laws reduce discrimination, violence, and psychic injuries to vulnerable groups? Nadine Strossen says they would not in her new book, Hate Speech: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. She believes we have insufficient evidence to conclude that “hate speech” in general harms others, and even less evidence that constitutionally protected “hate speech” does so. 

Naturally, proponents of “hate speech” laws blame expression for anti‐​social attitudes and conduct. Strossen maintains that we should refrain from censorship on the basis of expected effect, “simply because it might have bad effects.” The perceived harmfulness of any given utterance is context contingent, depending largely on variables like location, tone of voice, relationship between speaker and listener, and personality characteristics.

Strossen draws attention to a study conducted by Laura Leets of Stanford University. Leets recruited Jewish and LGBT college students to read several anti‐​Semitic and homophobic slurs all drawn from real situations. The subjects then answered questions about how they would have responded if they themselves had been the targets of these messages. Interestingly, a common response by the students was that the “hate speech” would have had “no effect” upon them in either the short run or the long run. Many of the participants also expressed the belief that the speaker was motivated by ignorance, “and therefore should be the object of pity, not anger” (124).

national survey of incoming first‐​year college students conducted by the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute found that “the entering freshman class of 2015 ranks among the most ambitious” in the areas of student activism, political and civic engagement. The study notes that this particular class of incoming first‐​years had witnessed “protests and outcries on college campuses and in communities” in response to “local incidents of bias and discrimination.” These students did not respond to “hate speech” and bias crimes with withdrawal and depression, but rather with engagement and dialogue. Such speech seems to foster political engagement within the larger community, a necessary component of a healthy democracy.

Although these studies focus on college students, Strossen notes that resources for developing one’s ability to resist the potentially negative effects of hateful speech are available to all. These tools include cognitive‐​behavioral therapy techniques for reducing anxiety or other negative reactions that might result from stressful situations (including exposure to “hate speech”), education about utilizing social media to respond to “hate speech,” and providing access to supportive organizations and other resources. Education and other responses may turn a negative experience into a hard‐​won moment in personal growth.

Strossen also addresses the question of whether “hate speech” fosters hateful and discriminatory attitudes and actions among those who hear it. She notes that “a comprehensive review of social science research about the potential links between media messages and audience behavior concluded that the effects on audience behavior are ‘weak and affect only a small percentage of audience members’” (127).

We should keep in mind that speech does not force people to act badly. Those who hear extreme utterances are responsible for their subsequent actions. British writer Kenan Malik remarks:

Racists are, of course, influenced by racist talk. It is they, however, who bear responsibility for translating racist talk into racist action. Ironically, for all the talk of using free speech responsibly, the real consequence of the demand for censorship is to moderate the responsibility of individuals for their actions.

If creators were held responsible for the anti‐​social acts that some individuals committed after viewing the material, “certainly neither the Bible nor the Qu’ran” would be safe, as “both have been accused of instigating countless individual and mass crimes” (128).

In summary, we should not outlaw speech because it might have bad effects. This approach would allow government to punish speech because it disfavors the speaker or the message without directly acknowledging this motive. Moreover, “given the endless array of speech about public concerns that could have such an impact, any other rule would largely muzzle democratic discourse” (127).


This the third post in series on Nadine Strossen’s new book, Hate Speech. The first and second posts may be found here and here.