What's the Harm in Hate Speech?

Friday, May 18, 2012


One of the great maxims in defense of the 1st Amendment is the insistence by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes that we must defend 'even the thought we hate'. But law professor Jeremy Waldron asks, when it comes to the most egregious hate speech, why?  He explains to Brooke that words can and do hurt us and that there should be limitations on the most hateful expression.


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Jeremy Waldron

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [10]

Saleem H. Ali from Burlington Vermont

I am very troubled by the author's incomplete logic. The difference between libel, threats, violence incitement, etc. and "hate speech" has been adequately established.

Following this professor's line of reasoning, people can call candid criticism of religious practices "hate" -- how will we ever have reform in society if we are afraid to criticize cultures which the others can easily deem to be "hate?"

Refer to my experiences in this regard when I criticized certain rituals in Shia Islam. Here is a link an article I wrote for Foreign Policy's site on the matter:


Jun. 03 2012 09:45 PM
MoondayLetters.com from NJ

The guest is essentially arguing that he himself is capable of intellectually absorbing "offensive" speech; however, the simpletons, i.e. the general public, do not have his intellectual and emotional abilities so they need to be protected from speech which he or a particular third party would find offensive--so he has placed his capabilities above those of everyone else. Unfortunately there are still too many leaders of nations around the world who also have such delusions of grandeur. The guest's argument is that because he or those with similar thinking can not convince people which speech is tolerable and which is not and make them put that understanding into practice, there should be a law against the speech which he or those with similar thinking find intolerable.

Those who would counter speech bans may not be reflexively pointing to the first amendment simply because it exists in law, as the interviewer posits, but rather because they attach meaning to it. The Constitution contains bedrock principals that the country was built upon and has thrived on and which are by purpose difficult to change. They are not laws of physics. They can be changed when an overwhelming majority of the society believes they should be changed, though not simply at the passing tides of current events or a minority opinion or even a simple-majority opinion. The guest is advocating that if he and those with similar thinking cannot convince enough people to override the safeguards wisely built into the constitutional system to protect against too easily overturning constitutional amendments (bedrock principals), then can't we just do it anyway because after all We know better than They do.


May. 22 2012 11:26 AM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Having faced hate speech myself the thing that worries me (especially in the incident that I'm currently thinking of) is not the speech itself but the fear that the speech would be followed by actions.

I'm in favour of free speech and was shocked to hear that it was against the law to be insulting. However, I feel that the education system should remind people that insults, especially when stated by several people around the same time, can be threatening. It can make the target of the insults believe that the insults are just a prelude to an attack.

In other words I'm pleading for more empathy and understanding to be instilled in people because that allows people to realise how their actions may be perceived. However, legally restricting free speech itself causes more problems than it solves.

May. 22 2012 02:08 AM
Francisco from Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

It's strange that your guest says the law in Britian is working well because there are a few people who are campaigning against it (in favour of more free speech): http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-18084081

May. 22 2012 01:54 AM
Mark Richard from Columbus, Ohio

I wonder who would judge what constitutes 'hate speech'? The law professoriat? Why is OTM even giving these denizens of the hot-house garden of the intellect, the elite law schools, a megaphone for their inevitably PC views, without Brooke being able to muster the indignation and ridicule that she would undboubtedly be able to summon for a right-wing supporter of restrictions on, let us say, 'hate speech' that targeted 'Americans' or their institutions? We have a First Amendment partly for the reason that the Founders wished to escape from the class-bound views of the Brits, where 'civility' is used as an excuse to smother dissenting views.

The only reason this gentleman can come up with to support his desire for suppression of 'hate speech' (the term itself says a lot about how the hard Left would like to find a way to keep speech free for itself while restricting it for their adversaries) other than his own political distaste for speech that challenges his white liberalism.

Along with the amazing hostility to a no-brainer First Amendment decision like 'Citizens United', the 'hate speech' movement bares the hostility of the dominant left-leaning chattering classes to opposing views. Losing out in the war of worlds will do that to you.

May. 21 2012 12:57 PM
Lawrence Jurosic from ohio

Greetings I am a teacher. I have students are learning another language and I would like the transcript to this story so that my students can read and listen to the discussion. I cannot find the transcript on-line but I am certain that you have it somewhere. I do thank you for the download of this story.

May. 21 2012 11:40 AM

There was an interesting discussion about gay singer Adam Lambert over at ATC. Well, I thought it was interesting. At least one person thought I was evil. Others were annoyed. The interesting thing for OTM was the number of comments that were not allowed. Were these comments that went beyond the pale and personally attacked me because I objected to NPR frequent gay stories? Or were these comments that voiced the same objection, but not as tactfully as I did? We will never know. We will never know because of NPR's self-censorship. Now what if that censorship was put into a hate speech law?

May. 20 2012 10:51 PM

The Right has long accused Liberals of opposing free speech. With your soft ball interview of Mr. Waldron you have given them a gift. "Hate speech" is subjective. Take for example the issue of gay marriage. When gay marriage is put to voters -- from the red state of North Carolina to the purple state of Wisconsin to the blue state of California -- it is voted down. Obviously this is a controversial issue -- that is outside the cubicles of NPR. Nevertheless, is it far from unusual to be labeled a "hater" or a "homophobe" for opposing gay marriage. Large segments of the media have adopted a pro-gay marriage stance to the point that the very word "homosexual" is no longer used in discussing this issue. (It is offensive to gays don't you know.) So back to Mr. Waldron. Would not his prohibition of so-called hate speech stifle debate on this issue? As it is the self-censorship of media outlets like NPR are already doing a pretty good job of stiffing debate. (Okay. I am done. I will wait to see 1)if this comment is taken down and 2)how long it take to call this hate speech.)

May. 20 2012 07:52 PM
Martin Morand from NYC

I (also) would love to hear (such) a conversation. I have been troubled by this issue for most of my 84 years and fear the "slippery slope" aspect of each side of the argument. The "conversation" would, at least, help me to sharpen my own thoughts.

It's been stimulating and rewarding.

May. 20 2012 11:55 AM
Jean Grosser from Hartsville, SC

I have been using pages from "The White Man's Bible," a neo-Nazi hate book, in my artwork for about 6 years, most recently creating 6 x 4 ft drawings of enlarged crumpled pages. I have become very interested in "freedom of hate speech" as an important aspect of the first amendment. I was inspired by a great law review article by Amy Adler (who also teaches at NYU) entitled "What's Left?: Hate Speech, Pornography, and the Problem for Artistic Expression." I, along with many artists (including Andres Serrano, who photographed of members of the Ku Klux Klan) use images of hate ambiguously, to cause viewers to examine their own core beliefs. The artwork is not always explicit about its intention. According to Jeremy Waldron's definition of hate speech, such words or images might still be banned. I would love to hear a conversation between NYU colleagues Amy Adler and Jeremy Waldron on the subject.

May. 20 2012 08:26 AM

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