One of the most controversial topics that a democratic society faces is the issue of regulating the speech of its citizens. As Delgado and Stefancic suggest in Must we defend Nazis? Hate speech, pornography, and the new First Amendment (1997), the notion of “free speech” in a democratic society is a misnomer, as social institutions place controls on what can be said, to protect the public. This is certainly the case when speech is classified as obscene, defamatory, slanderous, or hateful, and holds a reasonable potential to be harmful (Lederer & Delgado 1995). Hate speech, for example, is a form of verbal aggression that expresses hatred, contempt, ridicule, or threats toward a specific group or class of people (Asante 1998). Hate speech encompasses verbalizations, written messages, symbols, or symbolic acts that demean and degrade, and, as such, can promote discrimination, prejudice, and violence toward targeted groups. Hate speech often stems from thoughts and beliefs such as hatred, intolerance, prejudice, bigotry, or stereotyping (Allport 1954). Common forms of hate speech include ethnophaulisms, racial slurs and epithets, sexist comments, and homophobic speech.
Functions And Examples
Hate speech functions to distort the history of targeted groups, to eliminate the agency of targeted groups, to create and maintain derogatory cultural, racial, and ethnic illusions about targeted groups, and as a vehicle for expressing pejoratives (Asante 1998). This class of communication represents some of the most noxious and often hurtful forms of communication that exist (Kinney 2003; Leets & Giles 1997). Examples of hate speech can be found in our earliest written records, including the New Testament (Titus 1:10 –16), where derogatory statements are made against a class of people:
 For there are also many disobedient, vain talkers, and seducers: especially they who are of the circumcision.
 Who must be reproved, who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake.
 One of them a prophet of their own, said, The Cretians are always liars, evil beasts, slothful bellies.
 This testimony is true. Wherefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith.  Not giving heed to Jewish fables and commandments of men, who turn themselves away from the truth.
 All things are clean to the clean: but to them that are defiled, and to unbelievers, nothing is clean: but both their mind and their conscience are defiled.
 They profess that they know God: but in their works they deny him; being abominable, and incredulous, and to every good work reprobate.
Perhaps the most harmful form of hate speech from the perspective of society manifests when representatives of well-established social institutions use it to espouse their positions by oppressing, ostracizing, and demeaning others for political or power purposes. This form of hate speech can be used to justify why another group must be removed, discriminated against, or killed, as the contents of the messages often cast the other as the enemy, as subhuman, as immoral, or not worthy of existence. The Nazis’ use of anti-Semitic propaganda during World War II is perhaps one of the clearest examples of hate speech, although hate speech tends to surface during most wars as a way to instill hatred and incite violence toward the opposing force. Use of the terms “terrorist” and “axis of evil” are examples of how speech is able to cast a class of individuals (or entire countries) into the role of enemy, motivating derogatory thoughts and potentially inciting violence against them. Thus, one conclusion that can be drawn about the nature of hate speech is that it provides a window through which we can view aspects of ourselves (Allport 1954). As Berkowitz suggests in Aggression: Its causes, consequences, and control (1993), when we experience aversive affective states we are often driven to express them outwardly.
Social scientists have examined some of the social issues that underlie hate speech. For instance, Allport (1954) argues that individuals develop prejudicial tendencies and beliefs early in life as a direct result of being exposed to these notions from others . In 1989, the Prejudice Institute undertook a national assessment of the extent and consequences of ethno-violence and other forms of victimization in the United States. The Institute defined ethno-violence as acts motivated by prejudice that are intended to do physical or psychological harm to persons because of their actual or perceived membership in a social category. Results showed that ethno-violence occurred at substantially high rates, and that the rates varied by social setting (community, work, school) and by target group (black, white, Latino, Native American, Asian-American, etc.). In addition, most ethno-violent acts were not reported to officials, and, as a consequence, the magnitude and severity of ethno-violence and its aftermath are largely unrecognized. Finally, the study revealed that victims of ethno-violence suffer greater trauma than do victims of other types of violence that is committed for reasons other than prejudice. While this is just one study, it does support the notion that hate speech may be prevalent in American society and that its consequences, while severe, are largely unrecognized, and underreported.
Justifications For Regulation
The consequences of exposure to hate speech have been examined by social scientists, and the evidence suggests that such exposure can harm individuals psychologically, socially, and physically. Hate speech holds power over aspects of our well-being due to the way that it is able to infiltrate our thoughts, affecting how we perceive ourselves, and due to its ability to activate physiological and affective responses. While the process of infiltration is complex, it starts with exposure to a negative message. At this point a host of psychosocial theories help to explain how the negative message enters the psychological system to produce cognitive changes that may activate affect (e.g., Higgins 1987), cause pain, elicit psychological harm, and incite aggressiveness (Lazarus & Folkman 1984).
These effects potentially move hate speech from protected speech into arenas in which it may be regulated despite democratic principles promoting freedom of speech. However, there are significant problems when regulating speech, including determining what is offensive, being able to separate speech that expresses thoughts, however negative and egregious, from speech that solely functions to demean and damage, and then being able to assess harm accurately. While there are specific instances of words and phrases that most individuals recognize as taboo because they are inflammatory (e.g., racial epithets), even these words can be reclaimed and re-engineered by specific groups in ways that alter their meanings, making them less offensive for some.
Currently, justifications for the regulation of hate speech center on the idea that hate speech is detrimental to social and racial harmony and may lead to forms of harm against recognized groups of individuals. As a result, several countries have enacted laws that ban forms of hate speech (e.g., United Kingdom, Canada, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, France, USA). These laws are seen by some as a form of state-sponsored censorship, and at the extreme end, a form of thought control. The most common form of regulation is to enact speech codes or codes of acceptable conduct (Lee 1997).
In addition to the socially oriented reasons to regulate hate speech, a second rationale for regulation is grounded in social psychological theory. Social scientists argue that motivations often influence behavior, and that motivations that activate strong emotions influence behavior more directly. Thus, the motives that tend to be associated with hate speech are seen as undesirable for individuals to harbor, including prejudice, bigotry, stereotyping, and cynicism. It is often the case that violence is driven by the motives that surround hate speech. As such, the cognitive consequences of these motives can breed discrimination and overt hatred, which can ignite anger and incite violence. Thus, if hate speech holds the power to instill hatred toward others, then hate speech holds the potential to promote overt and covert discrimination and violence, which suggests that it can be regulated.
Message Design Issues
The fact that we recognize that our self-concepts may be vulnerable to verbal and symbolic attacks and we are willing to develop and use forms of communication that target these vulnerabilities suggests that we understand how the self-concept is organized. The fact that we align ourselves along, and are connected to, our racial, ethnic, and national origins, our past, and our gender identification, makes us vulnerable to messages that attack these aspects of our selves. Understanding this connection makes us effective in being able to attack others. The use of hate speech suggests that the message source believes that the target (1) deserves to be attacked, intimidated, or harassed, (2) is deficient or corrupt in some manner, and (3) is vulnerable to the message. These notions bring to the surface important aspects of communication research that allow for a deeper understanding of how messages do harm. The principles of message design are central to this area of communication scholarship, and research shows that the nature of the message makes an important difference in how it is interpreted and the type and magnitude of response that it generates (e.g., Calvert 1997). Thus, the design components of messages and the social contexts in which the messages are found are important areas to examine for communication scholars.
As societies become more diverse, manifestations of hatred can increase due, in part, to social tensions and perceptions of inequalities. In addition, technological advances that allow the dissemination of messages to mass markets in relative privacy serve to create new communication spaces where hatred can flourish, as is experienced on the Internet. Empirical evidence suggests that exposure to expressed hatred and rejection can harm individuals (Rohner & Rohner 1980; Savin-Williams 1994). The effects illustrate that what others say and do holds tremendous weight. As such, the issue of hate speech is an important social phenomenon, but is especially controversial in democratic societies that must balance the rights of individuals against protecting the public from harm.
- Allport, G. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley.
- Asante, M. K. (1998). Identifying racist language: Linguistic acts and signs. In M. Hecht (ed.), Communicating prejudice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 87– 98.
- Berkowitz, L. (1993). Aggression: Its causes, consequences, and control. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
- Calvert, C. (1997). Hate speech and its harms: A communication theory perspective. Journal of Communication, 47, 4 –19.
- Delgado, R., & Stefancic, J. (1997). Must we defend Nazis? Hate speech, pornography, and the new First Amendment. New York: New York University Press.
- Higgins, T. (1987). Self-discrepancy: A theory relating self and affect. Psychological Review, 94, 319 –340.
- Kinney, T. A. (2003). Themes and perceptions of written sexually harassing messages and their link to distress. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 22, 8 –28.
- Lazarus, R. S., & Folkman, S. (1984). Stress, appraisal, and coping. New York: Springer.
- Lederer, L., & Delgado, R. (1995). The price we pay: The case against racist speech, hate propaganda, and pornography. New York: Hill and Wang.
- Lee, J. J. (1997). Understanding hate speech as a communication phenomenon: Another view on campus speech code issues. Communications and the Law, 19, 55 –77.
- Leets, L., & Giles, H. (1997). Words as weapons – when do they wound? Investigations of harmful speech. Human Communication Research, 24, 260 –301.
- Rohner, R. P., & Rohner, E. C. (1980). Antecedents and consequences of parental rejection: A theory of emotional abuse. Child Abuse and Neglect, 4, 189 –198.
- Savin-Williams, R. C. (1994). Verbal and physical abuse in the lives of lesbian, gay male, and bisexual youths: Associations with school problems, running away, substance abuse, prostitution, and suicide. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 62, 261–269.