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Hate Speech

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When should certain speech be criminalized?

It’s a tough question to answer because it really depends upon the society, although certain standards must apply. Each society can, and should, decide for itself what speech results in some form of prosecution as long as they adhere to a certain principle — does it directly affect public safety.

Question is “how do you combat extremism without limiting speech that promotes extremism?”

In the USA, speech that promotes extremism is reprehensible and should be confronted, but since we do not have a recent history of such speech creating a direct threat to public safety, we have not criminalized it. However, whenever speech directly encourages somebody else to commit violence against a target, then s/he is responsible.

In the USA, one is legally allowed to say, “Ethnic Group A is subhuman,” but one cannot say to a disciple, “Go, under my authority, and kill somebody from Ethnic Group A because they are subhuman.” Other forms of speech in the USA — such as the old classic, yelling fire in a crowded movie theater when there is not one — is a crime because it directly puts people’s lives in jeopardy.

Elsewhere in the world, promoting extremism with speech has, in fact, proved itself to be a direct threat to public safety. In Europe, for example, the elevation of Nazism started with (hate) speech, so that in many countries the promotion of Nazism (including Holocaust denial) is considered a public safety threat, and therefore, is criminalized.

However, it is imperative to guard against abuses. Many places try to ban speech because it is deemed offensive, upsetting, inappropriate for their cultural values, etc., but has not shown any direct threat to public safety. When speech is banned for no other reason than to marginalize certain people who have not shown any threat to public safety, then it is just wrong because it institutionalizes discrimination.

Recognizing certain speech as offensive but not criminal is why, in the USA, we differentiate between a “hate crime,” and a “hate incident.” Hate crimes are criminal acts that are motivated by feelings of prejudice and negative biases against someone because of his/her identity. Hate incidents are vile, hateful acts which society deems foul and inappropriate, but that nevertheless are legal because they do not directly result in abuse.

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