Free Speech Or Hate Speech? Americans Struggle To Decide When That Line Is Crossed

Many people struggle with the boundary between offensive protest speech and hate speech. Is speech used to advocate for change, or is it to harm someone psychologically? (Photo illustration by Megan Ross/News21)

By Scott Bourque

PHOENIX — More than 16 million people, many of whom are foreign, passed through the Tom Bradley International Terminal at Los Angeles International Airport in 2017. Most days, they only have to deal with immigration and customs inspectors. But one day last June, they dealt with a small, vocal group holding signs denouncing Islam.

They weren’t targeting their message to lawmakers or activists. Instead, they targeted foreigners — particularly Muslims — who had finished long intercontinental flights from far-flung places.

Was this a legitimate act of political speech? Was it hate speech?

Many people struggle with the line between offensive protest speech and hate speech.

“It is a matter of what the target perceives it to be,” said Phyllis B. Gerstenfeld, a hate crimes expert at California State University, Stanislaus. “One way of thinking about it is, what is the primary intent of the speaker? Is it to affect change or is it to harm someone psychologically or verbally?”

Jared Taylor of Oakton, Virginia, founder of a self-described “white advocacy” group that’s best known for its “American Renaissance” magazine and website, said that threshold is too low.

“What is hate speech? It’s defined basically as anything that upsets someone,” he said. “Certain facts will offend people. Certain opinions will offend people. If you run your life strictly on the basis on who you might offend, how far are you going to get?”

In 1968, the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in. In Brandenburg v. Ohio, justices ruled that speech isn’t protected if it incites violence. They devised the “imminent lawless action” test: the speech must advocate violence and be likely to incite it.

“Incitement” is in the eye of the beholder, especially in today’s heated political climate, free speech experts say.

Some social-justice activists and scholars consider upsetting words a form of violence or incitement toward violence, especially with how quickly word spreads over the internet, said Benjamin Krueger, who teaches political rhetoric and discourse at Northern Arizona University.

Che Rose of Washington, D.C., is one of those social-justice advocates. An expert in online and alt-right “gamer” culture, he said offensive speech might not be immediately harmful, but it makes people think violence toward certain groups is acceptable.

“If people know it’s OK to say something, then they think it’s OK to do it,” Rose said. “They’re pushing norms in a bad direction.”

Taylor disagreed. He said the entire concept of free speech is to protect the right to be controversial, and to offend people.

“We can’t simply decide ‘OK, we have everything figured out, and anything that deviates from what we’ve got figured out is wrong is shut out,’” Taylor said. “That’s the end of progress. That’s the end of any kind of free debate, that’s the end of democracy, that’s the end of the United States, as far as I’m concerned.”

Krueger said equating words with violence creates “philosophical problems,” adding that laws regulating words are content-based restrictions and rife with legal complications.

So, those protesters at the LA airport? Some experts say their message was hateful, but others say it was a way to bring attention to a controversial issue. Based on the law, it is protected.

But Rose, the social-justice advocate, said people who preach hate will be judged through the lens of history.

“When they make the movies about this decade, you’re the bad guy,” he said of the perpetrators of hate.

This story was produced by the Walter Cronkite School-based Carnegie-Knight News21 “Hate in America” national reporting project. Follow the project’s blog here. The full report will be released later this month.


    • Mike, I think your comment is right on. Speech is an action and actions have their consequences. Some animal screaming in your face is an assault and deserves the same in return.

  1. Perhaps we could stop coddling snowflakes and simply start holding agitators responsible for thier actions and not by the reaction of those allegedly so easily offended by opposing views.
    Uniformed standards and definitions of free speech Vs. hate speach would go far to solve the problem.
    Currently if your Christian and/or conservative, white or openly heterosexual anything you say is offensive and is rabidly attacked as hate speach by the looney left, of course anything they say in opposition is clearly protected free speach.

    The Oracle

  2. The new left has become the home for hate and intolerance. They just accuse everyone else of it. makes them feel superior.

  3. As a legal gun owner I ask that you change the picture icon related to this article. Free speech and hate speech should not be identified with a picture of a gun.

    • Seriously Vickie, your dealing with Cronkite News, it’s little more then a propaganda outlet proclaiming to be relevent news.
      I’m sure few students leaving the school of “journalism” ever go on into real jobs within that arena, most go on to open a knife sharpening shop, they always seem to have a social justice axe to grind while pretending to be relevent journalist…
      The gun was only added for its shock value and like the points raised in the story have little to do with the subject matter.

      The Oracle

  4. This morning on channel 13 I think it was there was a message/news story that people need to take courses in education which ’cause them to think’, to expand their horizons and on and on. Basically, they were recommending what USED to be taught to gain a well rounded appreciation. Just think, they want you to know how to think and to have a greater scope of what life is all about. They included READING as a means of learning about things.

    I told my wife what they were advocating is what was taught in schools and college/universities before they became left sided obstacles to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness! Maybe if it was a news thing it will be on again if not maybe it can be found on their blog/aps I dont know?

  5. A legal definition of hate speech, according to online US Legal, is a communication that carries no meaning other than the expression of hatred for some group, especially in circumstances in which the communication is likely to provoke violence. It is an incitement to hatred primarily against a group of persons defined in terms of race, ethnicity, national origin, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and the like. Hate speech can be any form of expression regarded as offensive to racial, ethnic and religious groups and other discrete minorities or to women.

    What we used to call “fighting words,” such as a white person using the n-word to an African American, a man calling a woman a c-nt, etc. When young, among my Italian American paisans, we called each other dago and wop, etc. — but if an outsider used those words, it was fight time. I remember when I was 13 and another kid called me a motherf–ker; I chased him, caught him,, and beat him with a stick. Today it’s used everywhere and seems to have lost its sting — just like people routinely call each other a–holes now. I happened upon an American Nazi Party rally in San Francisco some years back and exercised my free speech right to yell “F–k You” repeatedly at their would-be fuhrer while he was ranting. Cops ran me off. Probably the right thing to do.

    Maybe it’s those words which say you are less than me, you are less than human, you are inferior — maybe those are what hate speech is about and, for me, those are fighting words. It’s not about left or right — free speech implies debate, discussion, consideration, but hate speech short circuits all that. When we dehumanize others, we are really dehumanizing ourselves.

  6. This is not about hate speech, it is about who gets to determine what is allowed to be said.
    Anything other than the leftists talking points is hate speech, nothing more and nothing less. I for one will not play their game. The left needs to be destroyed along with their ideas of what they believe is right or wrong. They have stolen the narrative, and they are elitist fools that are so filled with the same hatred about anyone who disagrees with them. MAGA!

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