Free Speech v. Hate Speech

How do we determine the difference between free speech and hate speech?

The first amendment is a right of all Americans. And while we see much abuse of this right, it would be a difficult thing to use our own free speech to silence another’s. 

Our speech and how we use it is a serious thing. Being offensive with speech can be cruel. However, the issue facing our society is not offensive language, but free speech giving all manner of language a space. 

“To me, free speech is a way that anyone in general speaks up on things,” said Perla Vazquez, senior at UWT. “They have an opinion on something, but they have the freedom to speak upon it with no judgements made.” 

So, can anyone stop me from saying anything? Can I write anything I want and speak my mind in any way I choose whether my readership gets offended or not? 

The answer is yes, and no. 

Free speech is needed if a society is to function. With this being true, then society must be ready to tolerate offensive and even hateful speech. 

The Free Speech Amendment was written to keep the power in the people’s hands and not place full power of what can happen in America in the government’s hands. To put it simpler, this means that citizens can publicly state their criticisms of the government without fear of punishment. 

While saying mean things to people is frowned upon, it is not illegal. While the amendment keeps the government in check, it does not prevent people from saying what they want to anyone. However, where the first amendment draws the line is on threats of violence. 

So, what’s the difference between hate speech and threats of violence you ask? A racial slur is considered hate speech, but not punishable by law. But a statement made to cause people to fear for their physical safety, would be punishable to the degree of its reasonable possibility.  

To be clear, there is no legal definition to what society calls hate speech. For example, if someone spray painted a racial slur on someone’s house, the person would not be charged because of the words they used, but with vandalism. But if the racial slur were to be accompanied by a threat to the homeowner’s life, then that too is punishable by law. 

Some of the biggest cases on free speech in US history were Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), US v. Schenck (1917), Pickering v. Board of Education (1942), RAV v. City of St Paul Minnesota (1992), Wisconsin V. Mitchell (1993) and many more, and they all came to their own interpretation of what was legally punishable based on what was said.  

Whether punishable by law or not, is not my point though, because if we’re honest with ourselves, then we’ll see that not everything we say is free of consequences. And for me it’s important for people to see where that line is for themselves. 

“My sister and I were at Wal-Mart, and we speak a lot of Spanglish,” said Vazquez. “A white older woman told us directly, don’t speak Spanish, you’re in America.” 

Vazquez asked me if what happened to them was considered hate speech? My response to her was yes. This was a clear example of the suppression of her Latin American culture and the violation of human dignity. 

All communities share in something, and that is, we all hear hate speech come our way and we all express it at one point or another about something or someone, either knowingly or unknowingly. And still, the reality is, I, or the law cannot tell people what to say or how they should feel. 

We all have examples of moments in our life where we have experienced or seen someone else experience hate speech and even threats of violence, quite possibly because of the speech. We’ve tried to be politically correct, but to be honest, that doesn’t solve the issue, because the issue has to do with hatred in the hearts of people. And to possess such a horrible thing is a choice.  

Free speech is needed if a society is to function. Illustration by Cole.