Hate speech in the United States

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Hate speech in the United States is not regulated, in contrast to that of most other liberal democracies.[1] The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that hate speech is legally protected free speech under the First Amendment. The most recent Supreme Court case on the issue was in 2017, when the justices unanimously reaffirmed that there is effectively no "hate speech" exception to the free speech rights protected by the First Amendment.

In academic circles, there has been debate over freedom of speech, hate speech and hate speech legislation.[2]

Constitutional framework[edit]

The protection of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, was not written into the original 1788 Constitution of the United States but was added two years later with the Bill of Rights, implemented as several amendments to the Constitution. The First Amendment, ratified December 15, 1791, provides (in relevant part) that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press". The Fourteenth Amendment, ratified on July 9, 1868, has been interpreted by the Supreme Court as extending this prohibition to laws enacted by the states.

Supreme Court case law[edit]

Some limits on expression were contemplated by the framers and have been defined by the Supreme Court of the United States. Starting in the 1940s U.S states began passing hate speech laws. In Beauharnais v. Illinois the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state of Illinois's hate speech laws. Illinois's laws punished expression that was offensive to racial ethnic and religious groups. The issue of group defamation was first most explicitly brought up in Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), which surrounded the issue of a Jehovah's Witness, Walter Chaplinsky, who attacked a marshall verbally for restricting his use of a public sidewalk to protest organized religion.[3] About a decade later in 1952, in Beauharnais v. Illinois the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the state of Illinois's hate speech laws.[4] The defendant was charged for distributing a leaflet that rallied white people in Chicago “to halt the further encroachment, harassment and invasion of white people, their property, neighborhoods and persons, by the Negro."[5] Going off Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, the court ruled that since "libelous utterances [are not] within the area of constitutionally protected speech," it did not matter that the speech did not incite any serious harm.[3] After Beauharnais v. Illinois, the Supreme Court developed a free speech jurisprudence that loosened most aspects of the free speech doctrine.[5]Traditionally, however, if the speech did not fall within one of the above categorical exceptions, it was protected speech. In 1969, the Supreme Court protected a Ku Klux Klan member's speech and created the "imminent danger" test to determine on what grounds speech can be limited. The court ruled in Brandenburg v. Ohio that: "The constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press do not permit a state to forbid or proscribe advocacy of the use of force, or of law violation except where such advocacy is directed to inciting imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action."[6]

This test has been modified very little from its inception in 1969 and the formulation is still good law in the United States. Only speech that poses an imminent danger of unlawful action, where the speaker has the intention to incite such action and there is the likelihood that this will be the consequence of his or her speech, may be restricted and punished by that law.

In R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, (1992), the issue of banning hate speech arose again when a group of Caucasian teenagers burned a cross in the front yard of an African-American family. The local ordinance in St. Paul, Minnesota, criminalized such expressions considered racist and the teenager was charged thereunder. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Supreme Court, held that the prohibition against hate speech was unconstitutional as it contravened the First Amendment. The Supreme Court struck down the ordinance. Scalia explicated the fighting words exception as follows: "The reason why fighting words are categorically excluded from the protection of the First Amendment is not that their content communicates any particular idea, but that their content embodies a particularly intolerable (and socially unnecessary) mode of expressing whatever idea the speaker wishes to convey."[7] Because the hate speech ordinance was not concerned with the mode of expression, but with the content of expression, it was a violation of the freedom of speech. Thus, the Supreme Court embraced the idea that speech in general is permissible unless it will lead to imminent violence.[a] The opinion noted "This conduct, if proved, might well have violated various Minnesota laws against arson, criminal damage to property", among a number of others, none of which was charged, including threats to any person, not to only protected classes.

In 2011, the Supreme Court issued their ruling on Snyder v. Phelps, which concerned the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest with signs found offensive by many Americans. The issue presented was whether the 1st Amendment protected the expressions written on the signs. In an 8–1 decision the court sided with Fred Phelps, the head of Westboro Baptist Church, thereby confirming their historically strong protection of freedom of speech, so long as it doesn't promote imminent violence. The Court explained, "speech deals with matters of public concern when it can 'be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community' or when it 'is a subject of general interest and of value and concern to the public."[8]

In June 2017, the Supreme Court affirmed in a unanimous decision on Matal v. Tam that the disparagement clause of the Lanham Act violates the First Amendment's free speech clause. The issue was about government prohibiting the registration of trademarks that are "racially disparaging". Justice Samuel Alito writes:

Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express "the thought that we hate". United States v. Schwimmer, 279 U. S. 644, 655 (1929) (Holmes, J., dissenting).[9]

Justice Anthony Kennedy also writes:

A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government's benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society.[9]

Effectively, the Supreme Court unanimously reaffirms that there is no 'hate speech' exception to the First Amendment.[10]

Societal implementation[edit]

In the 1980s and 1990s, more than 350 public universities adopted "speech codes" regulating discriminatory speech by faculty and students.[11] These codes have not fared well in the courts, where they are frequently overturned as violations of the First Amendment.[12] Debate over restriction of "hate speech" in public universities has resurfaced with the adoption of anti-harassment codes covering discriminatory speech.[13]

The speech that Hostile Work Environment Harassment Law can prohibit varies case by case and is continually under scrutiny by the courts. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) states that, “Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA). Harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.”[14] For example, in Brown Transport Corp. v. Commonwealth, the state of Pennsylvania stated that it was religious harassment to put religious pieces in their employee newsletter and Christian-themed verses on their paychecks.[15] In Olivant v. Department of Environmental Protection, the New Jersey Office of Administrative Law found jokes e-mailed to a workplace department and the judge ruled the jokes to “defame and dishonor men and women based upon their gender, sexual preference, religion, skin pigmentation and national and ethnic origin,” thereby making them illegal.[15]

NTIA report[edit]

In 1992, Congress directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to examine the role of telecommunications, including broadcast radio and television, cable television, public access television, and computer bulletin boards, in advocating or encouraging violent acts and the commission of hate crimes against designated persons and groups. The NTIA study investigated speech that fostered a climate of hatred and prejudice in which hate crimes may occur.[16] The study failed to link telecommunication to hate crimes, but did find that "individuals have used telecommunications to disseminate messages of hate and bigotry to a wide audience." Its recommendation was that the best way to fight hate speech was through additional speech promoting tolerance, as opposed to government regulation.[17][18][page needed]


  1. ^ The Supreme Court has upheld laws that punish hate violence as an aggravating factor in the normal sentencing guidelines. In Wisconsin v. Mitchell, 508 U.S. 476 (1993) a gang of black youths beat up a white teenager because he was white. The Supreme Court upheld the Wisconsin law that considering the hate based crime in an assault as an aggravating factor is not in contravention of the first amendment.


  1. ^ Freedom of Speech (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)
  2. ^ Herz, Michael and Peter Molnar, eds. 2012. The content and context of hate speech. Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ a b Fisch, William B. (2002). "Hate Speech in the Constitutional Law of the United States". The American Journal of Comparative Law. 50: 463–492. doi:10.2307/840886.
  4. ^ KPEKOLL (2017-12-12). "Hate Speech and Hate Crime". Advocacy, Legislation & Issues. Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  5. ^ a b Stone, Geoffrey (1994). "Hate Speech and the U.S. Constitution". University of Chicago Law School.
  6. ^ Brandenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444, at 447 (1969)
  7. ^ R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992)
  8. ^ "Facts and Case Summary: Snyder v. Phelps". Retrieved 10 October 2014.
  9. ^ a b "MATAL v. TAM". LII / Legal Information Institute. Retrieved 2017-08-13.
  10. ^ https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-1293_1o13.pdf
  11. ^ "Free speech on public college campuses", Kermit L. Hall, First Amendment Center, 13 September 2002
  12. ^ See, e.g., Doe v. Michigan (1989), UWM Post v. Board of Regents of University of Wisconsin (1991), Dambrot v. Central Michigan University (1995), Corry v. Stanford (1995).
  13. ^ "Harassment policies in the university", Alan Charles Kors, Society, vol. 28, no.4 (May/June 1991), pp. 22–30, Springer, ISSN 0147-2011 (Print), ISSN 1936-4725 (Online)
  14. ^ "Harassment". www.eeoc.gov. Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  15. ^ a b "What Speech Does "Hostile Work Environment" Harassment Law Restrict?". www2.law.ucla.edu. Retrieved 2018-11-16.
  16. ^ "NCJRS Abstract - National Criminal Justice Reference Service". www.ncjrs.gov.
  17. ^ Munro, Victoria (May 12, 2014). Hate Crime in the Media: A History. ABC-CLIO. p. 230.
  18. ^ Michael, George (September 2, 2003). Confronting Right Wing Extremism and Terrorism in the USA. Routledge. ISBN 9780415315005.