No, ‘free speech’ doesn’t allow hate speech

Free speech is a common defence even liberals use to protect the far right. It’s time this argument was destroyed for good.


Content note: this article discusses violent language which some may find triggering.


The events of Charlottesville felt predictable. Since Trump’s inauguration as President of the United States, hate crimes have rocketed across America. By February, schools alone had recorded a 106% rise in hate. America’s divisions were laid bare last month by Neo-Nazis feeling able to march on Charlottesville with torches, chanting “blood and soil” and free to do so without wearing a hood. The riots saw deaths. Yet, for many, the true outrage was at tearing down statues which were honouring the Confederation. There was more concern for property than there was for people.

When speaking to right wing show Fox and Friends, Laura Ingraham, editor-in-chief of Lifezette said that “this is not about racial healing or racial unity when you see property being destroyed. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about the eradication of history and acknowledgement that we had really difficult, horrible moments in our country’s history that we were able to overcome”.

Ingraham clearly disregarded the fact racists had just marched and caused terror across Charlottesville. Nothing has been overcome. The argument of free speech and honouring history is bullshit designed to justify pushing hatred. Germany does not have statues honouring Hitler despite his significant part in their history.

There are those who try to defend hate speech, even those of more liberal persuasions. Trump is dismissed. He doesn’t mean what he says, supporters say constantly. He didn’t mean it when he mocked a disabled reporter at a rally or when he called Mexicans rapists. It’s just a coincidence that he’s trying to put up a wall and get rid of accessible healthcare. It has nothing to do with speech.

Yet, speech does hurt. Sticks and stones can lead to bones breaking, and worse. Hate crimes have rocketed in America but they’ve also risen here since an incredibly toxic campaign around Brexit. In the three months after Brexit, there were a staggering 14,000 hate crimes recorded. Hate speech enables justifications for violence. Let’s also remember that words alone can be severely damaging. Look at the Australian debate on marriage equality. The queer community are experiencing horrendous hate speech regarding their humanity while the nation decides whether to grant equal rights. It is traumatic to have society constantly call you slurs and demean your humanity. Furthermore, speech determines votes, which sets rights which when denied creates further oppression.

“It is traumatic to have society constantly call you slurs and demean your humanity”

The organisation, HOPE Not Hate, have caused major waves in the UK. They campaign ardently against hate speech being allowed in public forums, including within newspapers. The media is used to getting its own way on editorial content and so the organisation have been met with critics who accuse the group of trying to ‘silence’ free speech. Yet, the organisation is relentless. They research hate groups, they seek to empower people to stand up to hate and they’ve analysed the activity of the far right who are trying to stop refugees coming to Europe. A spokesperson from HOPE Not Hate explained why hate speech should not be counted under the concept of free speech.

“This is a fairly simple equation. Free speech does not equate to freedom for hate, nor misquoted sections of Voltaire when abusing or encouraging violence towards others.

“With freedom to speak comes responsibility for what you say, and freedom for platforms to refuse you the opportunity to use their service to promote hate speech towards others.

“That’s why we welcome ongoing campaigns seeking to convince major brands to remove their advertising from sites promoting far-right fake news, and it’s why we successfully lobbied various funding platforms to remove members of a far-right anti-refugee campaign in the Mediterranean from using their services. It doesn’t prevent them saying what they wish to say; it does, however, remove some of their option for the rest of us to hear it, or for them to profit by it.

“This is not about the ‘snowflake generation’ nor is it about censorship. People are still free to express their views: it’s just that no-one should be forced to carry them. The sad reality, though, is that those promoting hate and intolerance can now exist in their own bubbles on social media echo-chambers and forums, regurgitating variants of twisted world views, where they are not challenged and their outlooks are self-reinforced.

“All too often those views are then carried out into the ‘real world’ and have an impact on our political life, and potentially community harmony too.”

“This is not about the ‘snowflake generation’ nor is it about censorship”

People are conflating the right to freedom of speech with the idea that people absolutely must listen. There’s been articles that transphobic speakers for instance have been “no-platformed” from events due to their own prejudiced language. Nobody has the right to a platform anyway. Otherwise every single person could complain they were no-platformed or censored by not being invited to speak at an event, even if their only expertise is on Game of Thrones. We are not entitled to an automatic right to be heard, nor to preach hate.

Trans activist and comedian, Payton Quinn was a driving force behind a campaign to ensure that Cardiff University did not give a platform to Germaine Greer. The renowned feminist (if we’re to use the term loosely) has used increasingly derogative language towards trans women. Greer has stated that trans women are not real women and in a statement to the VictoriaLIVE show she claimed “just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress doesn’t make you a ******* woman”. Such a statement was made in a climate where trans people are not equal. Recent figures show that in 2016 alone transphobic hate crimes rose 170% – and with appallingly low conviction rates. In the UK, non-binary trans people receive no legal recognition. We live in an era that is inherently transphobic. There’s no system to protect trans people in the UK and abuse is prolific.

Freedom of speech then isn’t about equal parties coming to a debate when one group of people is experiencing horrific oppression.

“The idealised understanding of free speech relies on the notion that it is a negative right and that everyone begins at an equal standing which is simply not the case,” Payton Quinn said. “By rewarding people who dehumanise other groups of people with a platform a clear priority is given to those who seek to remove the rights of others over those who seek to affirm them. When we allow space for those who seek to do so, or entertain the idea that the human rights of a group are open to debate, we create an environment in which violence (direct and systematic) can be excused and rationalised.

“This is particularly insidious in settings that consist of primarily young people, who are often away from familiar support network, at a time in their life that can determine their entire future.”

“The idealised understanding of free speech relies on the notion that it is a negative right and that everyone begins at an equal standing which is simply not the case”

Universities can be hubs for debate which can be wonderful – if the debates are sincere and don’t evolve around discussing marginalised people’s right to exist. Quinn showed how young people can make a difference. Greer never did get the gig at Cardiff University. Standing up to hate works.

Roanna Carleton-Taylor, co-founder of anti-hate group Resisting Hate, which focused upon challenging hate and bigotry particularly on social media, believes while there is a fine line between freedom of expression and hate speech, it’s important to constantly engage to challenge hate across social media platforms.

“I do not consider hate speech to be free speech as the sole purpose is to harm and abuse others,” Carleton-Taylor said. “Instead of focusing on the rights of people to say what they want I am more interested in the rights of people not to be abused for their colour, race, faith, orientation etc. We hear a great deal of talk about civil rights but Resisting Hate would like to see more on civil responsibilities. To my mind, we have a responsibility toward the communities we live and work in to keep them hate free and the people in them safe from abuse.

“We do need tougher sanctions on hate speech. The impact of social media is largely underplayed by the legal system but we are starting to see some awareness that the consequences of online speech can be as serious as face to face hate speech and therefore need to carry the same penalties. We would support Alison Saunders in her view that online hate can act as a trigger and catalyst for hate marches and protests which in turn can lead to violence and harm.”

Social media is often dismissed as an echo chamber, yet Facebook is under constant scrutiny for the role it played in the US elections with the possibility that Russia may have utilised it against the Clinton campaign. The alt-right grew from forums such as 4chan. White angry gamers went from chatting on forums, to taking part in white nationalist events such as at Charlottesville.

“Social media is being used as a tool to indoctrinate the vulnerable and the young into hate,” Roanna Carleton-Taylor said. “It is being used as a mechanism of organisation to promote events like the atrocity at Charlottesville and it is desensitising an emerging generation to a diet of hate and venom.

“Social media companies are either unable or unwilling to police hate speech. Our group have reported an account called “DieJewDie” and had it suspended over thirty times. It always makes a new account (at one point it had 20 back-ups lined up) and then continues to spread Anti-Semitism and abuse others on the internet. I am unwilling to believe Twitter are unable to do anything about this. They are simply unwilling to tackle the problem. Facebook is equally blameworthy. The Britain First Facebook page has over 1 million followers. This is a page that regularly has members calling for the genocide of Muslims. Yet, Facebook do not believe this contravenes their community standards.

““Social media companies are either unable or unwilling to police hate speech”

“The antifascists are starting to mobilise themselves on social media as an activist force for diversity but it would be naive not to acknowledge that the far right have been more effective in the use of social media to organise their followers and get their messages out there. I was heartened to see Stormfront taken off line. More direct action like this will have a massive impact in breaking up the spread of hate that the far right are so intent on promoting all over the internet.”

Hate speech isn’t free speech but as long as it isn’t policed then little will change. It’ll keep being spoken in public forums and marginalised people will keep being targets. The BBC are obsessed with debating the existence with trans people. Sarah Champion (the former shadow Equalities Minister) believes herself a champion for going against what she sees as political correctness and saying that Pakistani men are more of a danger to girls than white men (despite a lack of evidence). It took far too long until Hopkins lost her radio job for hate speech. The policies of the BNP and UKIP are now mainstream and queer people, people of colour, migrants and disabled people are living in a culture where violence (verbal and physical) against them is a frightening norm. All of this adds up to a culture where oppression is championed. We all can stand up to hate. There’s no place for hate speech under the disguise of personal freedom. We must stand with vulnerable people – and against liberal instincts – and recognise the true dangers of allowing hate speech far outweigh any theoretical arguments around censorship.

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