In the past decade there has been more focus than ever before on the impact that a person’s words have on another individual. Bullying and harassment awareness has been a growing topic discussed in both schools and communities. Some believe that these issues fall under the category of hate speech, which the American Bar Association: Division for Public Education defines as “speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.” There is a good amount of controversy over the topic, and many find themselves asking:
Should hate speech be protected under the First Amendment?
It is easy to confuse hate speech with fighting words, which the ABA defines as “words without social value, directed to a specific individual, that would provoke a reasonable member of the group about whom the words are spoken”, and are not protected under the First Amendment. The slight difference between these two is that fighting words are words that are likely to cause the listener to react violently, while hate speech is not defined by the resulting physical reaction. Freedom of speech protects words that the listener may view as offensive or hateful and that they might disagree with, as long as those words do not cause the listener to react in a negative way.
Another fine line that has caused controversy on this topic is between hate speech and hate acts. Hate acts may be regulated by law, but hate speech may not, though this is often not because of the hateful reason behind the act, but the fact that the act is otherwise illegal. For example, if an individual was to throw rocks, written on with hateful words targeting the victims religion, through the window of their home, they would most likely be charged only with destruction of property. It would be very likely that the hateful nature of this act would not affect the sentence received. Many argue that this is the proper way to deal with this type of crime, because it is more important to focus on the crime itself than the motivation behind it. Instances like this prove that it can be blatantly obvious that speech or acts are motivated by hate, but it is not always that clear. Words can be interpreted differently by all sorts of people, so it becomes difficult for lawmakers to define and create a law against hate speech. As previously stated, a law against fighting words is feasible because they are defined by their outcome, but because hate speech causes feelings, not necessarily negative actions, it becomes much more difficult to judge.
As the LA Times states, “Hateful ideas are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas.” You simply cannot create a law against words based on the way they make people feel, because this violates the basic idea of freedom of speech in the First Amendment.