Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

What is Hate Speech?

I call myself, sometimes with tongue firmly placed in cheek, a “combatant of censorship.” My country (the United States for those of you playing along at home) has a long and sordid history of censorship to rival any other: From Puritan New England to the banning of books as varied as Huckleberry Finn and Mein Kampf, the U.S. has long led the so-called “free world” in censorship. And now, this insidious little thing called “hate speech” threatens to plague us again.

For those of you who think I’m kidding – I’m not. Though I am no proponent of using such speech, and I recognize the right of a blogger, newspaper, school, or company to curtail it on its own grounds, I stand firm in my position that legislating against “hate speech” is a very slippery slope. Part of the problem, of course, is the definition itself:

Hate speech is a term for speech intended to degrade person or group of people based on their race, gender, age, ethnicity, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability, language ability, ideology, social class, occupation, appearance (height, weight, hair color, etc.), mental capacity, and any other distinction that might be considered by some as a liability.

Rather inclusive, no? There are many points and opinions of my own that I could offer here, but instead, I’ll present three examples from popular culture and society. Do with them what you will, but by all means, discuss!

Just a warning before you click: I have taken some images of specific Facebook groups and online situations, and used a variety of words that are considered highly offensive to some people.  I’ve tried to present a wide variety as not to seem as though I’m picking on any one group…click at your own risk.

1. Reclamation of terms: Nigger. Cunt. Faggot. All examples of words that have been used to degrade, demean, and otherwise verbally injure members of particular minority groups.  Also all examples of works that are being reclaimed by those same groups.  Nigger, perhaps one of the most vilifying words of 20th century America, now peppers street vocabulary.  Dave Chappelle does comedy sketches on its use.  Though Black Americans’ views differ widely on the subject, the general agreement is that it’s not okay for use outside the community.  Hate speech or reclaimed word?  Cunt, while common slang in Britain, was one of the more offensive terms used against women in the United States (and still is to many), until it was reclaimed in the Vagina Monologues.  Hate speech?  Faggot, queer, and homo, to varying degrees, have all become part of the gay American lexicon.  Hate speech?

2. Hating the Inanimate: There is a questionable divide between what you can hate and what you can’t.  An all-too-obvious example from current events is the conflict between Israel and Palestine, which puts people on the defensive like nothing else.  A common issue within this conflict is the question of whether or not there’s a difference between hating Israel and hating Jews, or hating Zionism and being anti-Semitic.  Jewish advocacy group Jewish Internet Defense Force has, of late, been pushing Facebook to remove certain groups based on the “fact” that they promote hate.  Their site seems to be down, but the variety of groups they oppose include one entitled “Hate Israel,” and several that are simply in support of Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as others that ask members to “hate Jews” or “annihilate Israel.”  The question is: Are all of these groups created equal?  A few examples:


Is this hate speech, tasteless, or justified? Is this equal to the group below?


To some, the two above examples are equal.  To others, they’re extremely different.  One opposes a regime, a government; the other opposes a religion (or as some might argue, a race or a tribe of people).  What about the example below?  Is that hate speech?


Texas is a state, not a country comprising a group of specific people, however, the language used in the group’s description and logo could constitute hate speech.  What do you think?

3. The Freedom to Argue, Religiously Speaking: If a layman says “gays are evil,” is it any different than if a leader of the church says it?  On the contrary, is it permissible for a pastor, priest, or imam to argue against homosexuality based on religious (Biblical or Qur’anic) arguments?  We live in a time of relative equality, but there are still people of every faith who believe that women are best off in the kitchen, or raising children.  If a religious argument is made to that effect, does it demean women?  Or is it taken in the tradition of centuries of following religious norms?

If anything, it seems to me that upon reviewing these cases, it is even less clear what constitutes hate speech and what should be done about it.  Do we want a nanny state where an insult becomes a crime?  On the contrary, do we want minorities to suffer by the words of the majority?

Please share your thoughts.


  1. As an antiquarian book dealer, I collect racist/hate literature from the first half of the 20th century. It’s historically important. I’m glad it wasn’t all destroyed.

  2. This question goes in to the hart of Democracy. What are the relationships between citizens? what are the relations between citizens and governments, and what are the relationships between different people. How should a democracy state, act against those how want to hamper democracy.

    I think democracy, is first of all a culture. a culture of debating, rather then fighting. if some one is arguing for violence, between democratic parts then he is out of the game of democracy. If some one is saying that to find a solution one have to use force, then he is out.

    We can tolerate a single person how advocate for violence, but if we see that he has an impact on people, then we should act to disable his hatred ideology.
    I think that the best way to do this (and also eliminate government intervention) is by debate. But if this becoming dangerous to others (like in the Nazis case, or KAHANA, in Israel), they should be outlawed.

  3. You make some good points. The debate over the Grey area between political discourse and hate speech is a touchy one, especially when people intermix traditional views of hate speech and say antisemitism with political disagreement. It is frankly and area that the JIDF and I do not agree on but then I have also never been to Israel, never lost anyone in the conflict nor will I ever serve in the IDF so my context is more of a traditional academic one.

    Context is everything in the hate speech arena. Will Hal Turner be convicted of threatening federal judges? Maybe at the trial level- but what was the context of his posts? Ultimately, unless the Supreme Court decides to take a step backwards in what it considers “Fighting words” he will probably walk in the end.

    Should we treat a Neo-Nazi who collects Nazi memorabilia as a way to express hatred towards Jews the same as the pure historical collector such memorabilia? Debates on this issue rage within Facebook, youtube and other forms of social media(Holocaust Denial and anti-Israel groups) on a weekly basis.

    In the end, unless it is meant to incite imminent violence hate speech can not be criminalized in this country(USA). Keep your eyes out, I predict the Supreme Court will soon take this issue up again and we may see our 1st Amendment rights go backwards for the 1st time in American History.

    • Your conclusion is the same that I’m hoping for – I am only in favor of prosecuting speech which incites violence; and even then, it’s not the speech that should be blocked, but the person creating it.

      The problem with groups like the JIDF is that they claim to be in favor of free speech but in reality are not.

  4. Tim has a point there. what happens when that happens?

  5. Hi Jullian,
    Really interesting post. I applaud your willingness to recognize the problem of limiting “hate speech.” Defining the term itself is fairly challenging. But even if we could agree on a definition, are we going to outlaw hate? If someone says, “Obama is a pig” group A gets mad and group B cheers. If someone says, “Bush is a pig” group B gets mad and group A cheers. Which one is hate speech? It might depend on whether or not we agree with one of the statements.

    I was reading a post a few minutes ago that said “I can’t stand these rightwing creeps, but they sure know how to sell hate, fear, guns, God 24/7.” I think it is fairly obvious that the author had a point of view they wished to express about “rightwing.” First, they are “creeps.” That is hardly endearing. Second, the author, “can’t stand them.” The emotion expressed is very strong dislike. To dislike strongly is a virtual definition of hate in most dictionaries, is it not?

    I agree with your slippery slope analogy. In most groups it is acceptable to hate or demean somebody. In order to enforce “hate speech” fairly, then NO group would be allowed to demean ANY group or individual. That is not likely to happen.

  6. You do make a great point and I couldn’t agree more. It seems as though someone could be labeled for hate speech and not really say or mean anything hateful. I am quite offended that our Nation thinks it has the authority to regulate this…as it seems to me to be disciminatory to both sides.

  7. All Negativity gets you is negativity but that is on the person perpetrate “hate” on others. You get what you give out comes right back at you. Other wise again first Amendment is and should not change because some feel it neccessary to impart their hate on others.

  8. I was recently called a Racist in discussion forum through school by a student replying to my post. The subject is Hate Speech and questions relating to the assignment are as follows:
    What is your opinion about the laws against hate speech? Do you think that these laws should be eliminated or that they should be strengthened and enforced?
    This is my answer:
    Hate speech reminds me of the era when African American people were slaves and not permitted to share the same public facilities, transportation such as the bus lines, and restaurants’ etc. I find it appalling to treat human beings in this manner and even more appalling that our country treated humans this way.

    African Americans were courageous and strong back then with a strong religious faith in Christ that it would someday change. They were very religious indeed. In times of distress they sang hymns to overcome the hatred they endured. I feel the White American people didn’t have God in their heart and went to church because that was the norm back then. You can tell some White Americans were kind to their slaves and treated them with respect but had to discipline accordingly because it was the law in that era. If you were caught giving them slack you were called a nigger lover and subjected to being hanged yourself.

    Our Constitution was arranged in order to have rights as an individual who lives in the United States. We are considered “equal” in the eyes of the Constitution. I think those who are prejudice and have hate in their heart need some medication called Jesus Christ. Perhaps they will be changed accordingly as Christ teaches you to love in the right way which is not to hate your fellow man or brother. I believe our Constitution is derived from the forefathers’ beliefs in Christ.

    There is a fine line between verbal abuse and freedom of speech or voicing my opinion. Exceptions established by the courts to the First Amendment protections include defamation, causing panic, fighting words, incitement to crime, sedition, and obscenity (Van Camp, J. 1996-2005).

    I don’t think it should be eliminated but should be strengthened and enforced. Americans need to know the Constitution like the back of their hand in order to strengthen their rights.


    Van Camp J. (1996-2005) Freedom of Exception at the National Endowment of Arts Retrieved January 17, 2012 from http://www.csulb.edu/~jvancamp/freedom1.html

    This is her response:

    Hi Robin.

    The N word is very offensive to me and most people in this country and that is one word that should be against the law to say ! And stereotyping people like you have just done is wrong in my opinion, as I am white and have always had God in my heart and not all white people back then just went to church because it was the norm to do ! My best friends are African American and I love them like family. You sound like a racist yourself !

    I feel she didn’t read the entire post and jumped to conclusions in a hateful manner. Is this allowable?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


© 2016 Jillian C. York

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑