Eurozine: Free speech advocates opposed to the prohibition of hate speech tend to underrate the harm hate speech causes, argues Jeremy Waldron. Where it exists, such legislation upholds a public good by protecting the basic dignitary order of society.
“We speak openly and with civility about all kinds of human difference” is the fourth draft principle for global free expression proposed by the Free Speech Debate project. That is something we can all applaud. But as Timothy Garton Ash’s commentary indicates, it raises further issues that are not conveyed in the formulation of the principle itself. Should “speaking openly” mean speaking without any legal constraint, even when the speech is manifestly uncivil? So the discussion raises the issue of hate speech and the difficult question about whether it is ever appropriate to legislate against it.
The most striking thing about Timothy’s commentary on this issue is the absence of any substantial consideration of the harm that hate speech may do to those who are its targets. The message conveyed by a hateful pamphlet or poster, attacking someone on grounds of race, religion, sexuality, or ethnicity, is something like this:
“Don’t be fooled into thinking you are welcome here. The society around you may seem hospitable and non-discriminatory, but the truth is that you are not wanted, and you and your families will be shunned, excluded, beaten, and driven out, whenever we can get away with it. We may have to keep a low profile right now. But don’t get too comfortable. Remember what has happened to you and your kind in the past. Be afraid.”