Hate Speech: When to Limit Free Speech, Part 2

December 15, 2011

Political action, Political Theory

In my last post, I wrote about two types of speech that we might desire limiting. In this post, I want to examine the idea that another type of free speech that should possibly be limited is hate speech.

What do you think: should racist or sexist statements be allowed in public areas? Should children in middle schools be allowed to call gay classmates “faggots”? And what about something like Islamophobia: should people be allowed to discriminate others based on their religion?

This sign demonstrates one argument against this type of speech:

However, this is a dubious statement. If we were to say, for example, “Islam is a terrible religion because it has made life hell for millions of homosexuals,” this might be classified as Islamophobic hate speech. But isn’t the goal of such speech to correct what the speaker perceives as a social ill? He may be railing hatefully on a particular religion, but in this case, his belief that a particular social group is causing a particular problem seems to be a valid case of free speech. This seems to be the type of speech Mill’s arguments might successfully defend.

This presents one argument for allowing hate speech: the group being criticized really might be at fault.

Another argument for allowing religious discrimination is that, unlike race or sexual orientation, someone can choose his or her religion.  Also, religions stand for particular ideals. Even though there are differing opinions even within the same religion, calling yourself a member of a particular religion means that you willingly adopt at least some of its doctrines. Therefore, there is personal responsibility involved in many religious stances. To criticize a Christian for thinking the Earth is 6,000 years old is to criticize the Christian for something he/she willingly chose to believe. He/she does not have to believe it; a conscious choice was involved, so if they are wrong, they are culpable. To make fun of someone for being black or gay, though, is to make fun of something that they did not choose and are therefore not responsible for. This is one argument for allowing free speech of religious criticism: we choose our religion, and should therefore be prepared to deal with the criticism, or change our beliefs.

But what about hate speech against people who can’t choose the way they are? For example, should we allow gay-bullying or homophobia in schools?

On one hand, we know the damage caused by gay-bullying. On the other hand, censoring people who are condemning homosexuals for religious reasons seems to be suppression of religious or moral freedom of speech. One solution is that we could censor gay-bullying that is not religiously motivated (such as calling someone a “faggot”) while protecting one’s right to express religious disapproval. Well, Michigan tried enacting such a law, but the backlash was enormous: watch this short video of Michigan Senate Democratic Leader condemning “Matt’s Safe Schools Law” for ENABLING bullying.


There is a fine line between bullying and moral condemnation, and what happens when religion is merely being used as a scapegoat?

So why does the government allow bullying if it’s done for religious purposes? One answer is that the act of banning religious condemnation of homosexuality is that it is inherently taking a stance on religion. For the government to say, “You have no right to say that homosexuality is wrong,” is to take a clear stance on a religion whose holy book specifically addresses the immorality of homosexuality. But at the same time, we don’t allow religions to practice every doctrine their particular religion might teach (e.g. we don’t allow human sacrifice, polygamy, etc.).

While gay-bashing is probably a violation of Mill’s “harm principle”, many of his arguments for free speech still apply. What if, for example, there really is a God who will punish homosexuals unless they repent and become celibate? If this really is the case, as many Americans believe it is, wouldn’t it be good to allow this message to be shared—just in case?

So what do you think?

Should we allow discrimination based on religion?

Should we allow gay-bullying in schools?

Are there any other kinds of hate speech that we might consider banning?


About antuck

University of Michigan student.

View all posts by antuck


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2 Comments on “Hate Speech: When to Limit Free Speech, Part 2”

  1. jps3520 Says:

    I like this post, it sees both sides of the argument. On one hand you’re limiting free speech for the greater good, but also stifling religious freedoms, and both freedoms are big parts of what this country was founded on. Though I’m on the anti-bullying side, I don’t think that there should be a law against it. This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense because I realize that a law could impact the situation severely, but I just can’t imagine someone passing a law that limits free speech.

    I think it’s up to society to change the behavior of the bully in the situation. People need to stand up and let it be known that what the person is doing is wrong. On one hand, religions may be against homosexuality. Aren’t these the same religions who tell people to “love thy neighbor?” If homosexuality means damnation then surely the people who hated someone else for being different would be damned as well. There was one thing in this class that I think all living people should look at, and it’s cosmopolitanism. Anthony Appiah says, and I’m paraphrasing, that it means that everyone is responsible for one another but they also accept one another as being different. So if a homosexual and a religious fanatic were talking to one another, the religious man should say something like “my church believes that homosexuality is wrong, but I accept you for who you are.” People can stand up for what they believe in, but they shouldn’t make anyone else feel terrible in the process. I think that we as a society need to let people that are hurting others know they are wrong just as they are telling the LGBT community that they are wrong.

  2. evanhw Says:

    I have to agree with the comment above in that the right to free speech will probably not be amended any time soon. However, antuck does a great job posing the difficult question of whether or not hate speech is ever permissible. I think there is a certain point where religious discrimination can be considered as infringing one’s rights. Obviously if someone is infringing on another person’s civil liberties based off of a religious discrimination, it can be acted upon. With the same logic, bullying is unfortunately permissible unless there is physical violence being inflicted on someone or if the accused threatens the safety of the accuser.

    In both cases, I feel compelled to support the fact that free speech is a fundamental right that reaches to essentially all forms of banter or hate speech. This is a very interesting issue that should be exposed more thoroughly, especially throughout middle schools and high schools across the country.

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