The fine line between free speech and hate speech


Speech is one of the most artful modes of communication and also the most fundamental. It can happen in many different ways, through body language, through oral or visual actions or other medians. It is also, in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attack, as we try to understand “hate speech” and separate it from “free speech”, a mode that is being subject down to a very personal level.

There is a fine line between free speech, which to me is the honest expression of ones opinion or ideas and hate speech. To me the latter is the overt and deliberate attempt to discriminate and/or degrade an ethnicity, nationality and so forth.

On the side of free speech there are those with sincerely held views that might come across as offensive and possibly discriminatory. I have met people who sincerely believe it is not proper for a man to be in a relationship with another man. They did not go so far as to suggest that those engaging in such conduct should be killed or otherwise persecuted, but their upbringing had taught them that it should be frowned upon.

Another example of an offensive, yet honestly held view was when I was at the New Zealand First Convention in 2010. A gentleman from Dunedin South during a general Q+A session stood up and commented that Muslims should be put on a plane and sent home. The general chorus of disgust shut him down promptly and he was not heard from again for the rest of the conference.

So, where does freedom of speech transition into hate speech? Where does a personal dislike of a particular grouping in society become a hatred?

In terms of graphic content such as video, photography and so forth, the line is blurred. But the slope is slippery and down hill in nature. In terms of personal behaviour, simple things such as crossing the street when someone of different skin colour comes towards you, refusing to visit certain stores because of the ethnicity of the owners/operators suggest intolerance. However, in terms of wording I believe on the freedom of speech side, certain key phrases or terms denote the boundary. For example a derogatory comment might be made out of disgust, or in the heat of a situation and not be intentional. However discriminatory and degrading comments about a subject are intended to hurt and cause harm. The latter two are low level hate speech. Where it becomes graphic and is used in conjunction with descriptions of harm, violence or destruction it becomes high level hate speech.

But the key is both are hate speech examples and if the commentator has achieved low level hate speech, then the commentator is capable of high level hate speech as well.

Lesser, yet deliberately provocative hate speech, that puts down a particular group with irrational and often ill founded claims – “they’ve come to take our jobs; our land our homes”; “they have diseases; they don’t know how to parent” – can be heard being used by some fringe politicians. Former Australian Minister of Immigration and Border Protection, Peter Dutton, has been frequently criticized for his views on asylum seekers and refugees, in particular those from Africa and the Middle East.

A good example of hate speech was the incitement of Hutu’s to kill Tutsi’s during the Rwandan genocide 25 years ago. To get Hutu militiamen into the frame of mind necessary to kill their Tutsi neighbours or any Tutsi’s they saw, radio stations would broadcast incendiary content particularly aimed at degrading Tutsi’s and encouraging their murder. 800,000 Tutsi’s were killed, often with machete’s and often in places of worship where they thought they might be safe in a bit more than 100 days.

 

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