Why Hate Speech is Not Free Speech

Freedom in a free society is supposed to be for all. Therefore, freedom rules out imposing on the freedom of others. You are free to walk down the street, but not to keep others from doing so.

The imposition on the freedom of others can come in overt, immediate physical form — thugs coming to attack with weapons. Violence may be a kind of expression, but it certainly is not “free speech.”

Like violence, hate speech can also be a physical imposition on the freedom of others. That is because language has a psychological effect imposed physically — on the neural system, with long-term crippling effects.

Here is the reason:

All thought is carried out by neural circuitry — it does not float in air. Language neurally activates thought. Language can thus change brains, both for the better and the worse. Hate speech changes the brains of those hated for the worse, creating toxic stress, fear and distrust — all physical, all in one’s neural circuitry active every day. This internal harm can be even more severe than an attack with a fist. It imposes on the freedom to think and therefore act free of fear, threats, and distrust. It imposes on one’s ability to think and act like a fully free citizen for a long time.

That’s why hate speech imposes on the freedom of those targeted by the hate. Since being free in a free society requires not imposing on the freedom of others, hate speech does not fall under the category of free speech.

Hate speech can also change the brains of those with mild prejudice, moving it towards hate and threatening action. When hate is physically in your brain, then you think hate and feel hate, you are moved to act to carry out what you physically, in your neural system, think and feel.

That is why hate speech in not “mere” speech. And since it imposes on the freedom of others, it is not an instance of freedom.

The long–term, often crippling physical effects of hate speech on the neural systems of those hated does not have status in law, since our neural systems do not have status in our legal system — at least not yet. This is a gap between the law and the truth.

8 responses

  1. I follow your works, and appreciate this comment. But as director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom I recognize another truth: once we establish the legal premise of speech being equivalent to action, and someone’s report of being emotionally or neurologically injured by that speech as equivalent to physical injury, then no one is going to be able to say much of anything.There’s also a slippery use of “hate speech” in society. Martin Luther King, Jr. was derided by some as promoting “race hate.” Similar charges have been raised by white and wealthy parents when public school teachers spoke critically about the privilege of white students – that was just “racist.” Indeed, most of what passes for political discourse (judging by most comments on news sites) is hate speech rather than ideological debate. It’s unpleasant, but it’s suppression could be even worse.

  2. Contempt is the emotion of insular power. Hate is the reaction of the powerless. When 90% of the population opposed increasing immigration for decades during which immigration steadily increased, there is clear contempt for the population by the powerful. What do you expect their “neural circuitry” to do in reaction to such contempt, not just for the people, but for the very foundation of civilization: Consent of the governed?

    Are you seriously interested in coming to loggerheads over this? Do you really think that you can live without civilization any better than the people you hold in contempt?

  3. An issue for me is who decides what is hateful speech. People are not a monolith, and some are more offended and will see a wide variety of speech as hateful and worthy of censure.
    I do not want to be bound by blasphemy laws because religious people think it is hateful for me to say their god is make-believe or I do not like their prophet, for example.
    I can see this happen EASILY if “hate” speech is not longer seen as protected by our 1st Amendment.

  4. So where do we draw the line? All speech has neurological effects, some of which may be unpleasant or harmful. Is there any argument that would distinguish between the harm cause by hate speech to its victims and the harm caused by, say, blasphemy to religious believers? (Not a rhetorical question, btw.)

  5. But is there an objective set of rules that define all offending Hate Speech? I have met many people with “a chip on their shoulder” who will react to a neutral statement as if it were an attack. Their neural circuitry wouldn’t perceive the difference. And, do all purveyors of Hate Speech perceive their speech as hate-filled? Probably many do. But, IMHO, those on the margins are our only viable targets for reform.

  6. Thank you for this—it’s an important perspective that could reshape a debate that is otherwise intractable for so many people. I’m very interested in exploring the neurobiological argument further because I think it has enormous potential. I assume you probably don’t have time, but if you do, would you be willing to share a reference or two, particularly around the findings that being targeted by hate speech changes the brain of the target? I know that stress generally has negative effects, but maybe a reference on how hate speech in particular has this effect? Or could you point me to a website with these kinds of references? I have a PhD in Psych, so feel free to point me at original research.

    Thanks for all the work you’re doing, and for any help you can offer here!

  7. I would really appreciate it if you would define “hate speech.” For example, some people define hate speech as saying derogatory things about a group of people. While others draw the line at inciting to violence. Where do we draw the line between free speech that is opinion (wrong or right) and hate speech?

  8. But where does free speech end and hate speech begin? I think finding that line is the issue. It’s it advocating violence? Because I’ve heard some pretty negative stuff directed at Trump in rallies, and I don’t want my rights to be taken away.

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