Millian principles, freedom of expression, and hate speech

Legal Theory 7 (2):119-157 (2001)
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Hate speech employs discriminatory epithets to insult and stigmatize others on the basis of their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other forms of group membership. The regulation of hate speech is deservedly controversial, in part because debates over hate speech seem to have teased apart libertarian and egalitarian strands within the liberal tradition. In the civil rights movements of the 1960s, libertarian concerns with freedom of movement and association and equal opportunity pointed in the same direction as egalitarian concerns with eradicating racial discrimination and the social and economic inequalities that this discrimination maintained. But debates over hate speech regulation seem to force one to give priority to equality or to liberty. On the one hand, egalitarian concerns may seem to require restricting freedom of expression. Hate speech is an expression of discriminatory attitudes that have a long, ugly, and sometimes violent history. As such, hate speech is deeply offensive to its victims and socially divisive. Though one might well be reluctant to restrict speech, it might seem that the correct response to hate speech, as with other forms of discrimination, is regulation. On the other hand, libertarian concerns may seem to constrain the pursuit of equality. Though one may abhor hate speech and its effects, the cure might seem at least as bad as the disease. Freedoms of expression are among our most fundamental liberties. Offensive ideas are part of the price one must pay to protect these constitutional rights



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David Brink
University of California, San Diego

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