No, There’s No “Hate Speech” Exception To The First Amendment

There is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment

Calls for a new First Amendment exception for “hate speech” shouldn’t just rely on the undefined term “hate speech” — they should explain just what viewpoints the government would be allowed to suppress, what viewpoints would remain protected, and how judges, juries, and prosecutors are supposed to distinguish the two. Saying “this isn’t free speech, it’s hate speech” doesn’t, I think, suffice.

 

I keep hearing about a supposed “hate speech” exception to the First Amendment, or statements such as, “This isn’t free speech, it’s hate speech,” or “When does free speech stop and hate speech begin?” But there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. Hateful ideas (whatever exactly that might mean) are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas. One is as free to condemn Islam — or Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, or whites, or illegal aliens, or native-born citizens — as one is to condemn capitalism or Socialism or Democrats or Republicans.

To be sure, there are some kinds of speech that are unprotected by the First Amendment. But those narrow exceptions have nothing to do with “hate speech” in any conventionally used sense of the term. For instance, there is an exception for “fighting words” — face-to-face personal insults addressed to a specific person, of the sort that are likely to start an immediate fight. But this exception isn’t limited to racial or religious insults, nor does it cover all racially or religiously offensive statements. Indeed, when the City of St. Paul tried to specifically punish bigoted fighting words, the Supreme Court held that this selective prohibition was unconstitutional (R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul(1992)), even though a broad ban on all fighting words would indeed be permissible. (And, notwithstanding CNN anchor Chris Cuomo’s Tweet that “hate speech is excluded from protection,” and his later claims that by “hate speech” he means “fighting words,” the fighting words exception is not generally labeled a “hate speech” exception, and isn’t coextensive with any established definition of “hate speech” that I know of.)

The same is true of the other narrow exceptions, such as for true threats of illegal conduct or incitement intended to and likely to produce imminent illegal conduct (i.e., illegal conduct in the next few hours or maybe days, as opposed to some illegal conduct some time in the future). Indeed, threatening to kill someone because he’s black (or white), or intentionally inciting someone to a likely and immediate attack on someone because he’s Muslim (or Christian or Jewish), can be made a crime. But this isn’t because it’s “hate speech”; it’s because it’s illegal to make true threats and incite imminent crimes against anyone and for any reason, for instance because they are police officers or capitalists or just someone who is sleeping with the speaker’s ex-girlfriend.

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