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Hate speech, criminal incitement, and freedom of expression

Jeffrey Howard, University College London

Tue 9 August 2016

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


One of the most powerful arguments against hate speech is that it is dangerous: it risks inspiring listeners to engage in violence and discrimination against the people the speech smears. Even so, many believe that hate speech should not be banned, since doing so would violate the right to freedom of expression. On this view, banning hate speech disrespect listeners’ autonomy, treating them like children who cannot be trusted to make up their own minds. It compromises democratic deliberation by restricting the marketplace of ideas. And it impinges upon the free development and exercise of citizens’ rational capacities.

In this talk I will argue against this popular view, contending that bans on hate speech do not affront our commitment to freedom of speech. My argument begins with an observation: virtually no one thinks that direct incitement to criminal wrongdoing, such as exhorting someone to commit a murder, is protected by the right to freedom of speech. But why not? I argue that this asymmetric treatment of direct criminal incitement, on the one hand, and dangerous hate speech, on the other hand, cannot be sustained. I review a variety of differences between the two forms of dangerous expression, arguing that they are morally insignificant. Once we appreciate the moral concerns that rightly move us to ban criminal incitement—without believing that we violate free speech in doing so—we will see that dangerous hate speech may permissibly be banned, too.

About the speaker

Jeff Howard is Lecturer in Political Theory and Normative Methods in the School of Public Policy at University College London.

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