Commentary | Hate speech: to ban or not to ban?

Point / Counterpoint

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Linda El Halabi is a U1 Political Science and International Development Studies student. Write her at Carol St-Gelais is a U1 English student. Write him at

When someone defends the view that hate speech should be banned, you can almost see the response coming: “Banning hate speech is bad because it limits freedom of speech.” That old reasoning goes like this: the value of democracy, supposedly, is in its ability to give everyone a chance to express themselves verbally, whatever that may entail.

Now, that’s bogus. You’d think people would have learned from the past, that they would know how weak democracy is against abuses of power like fascism, how it allows fascism to grow and gain popular support, and how democracy can eventually be broken by the same forces it helped foster. It all starts with disgusting slogans such as “The Jews are our misfortune” or qualifying Jewish people as a “subhuman race.” What do you get after a while? Six million dead in one of history’s most atrocious tragedies. Over three decades, Hutu children in Rwanda learned how to hate their Tutsi classmates from party propaganda, from radio stations, from their teachers, and from their parents at home. What was the result? A million dead and thousands of refugees in an enormous humanitarian crisis. This is what hate speech does. This is how genocides begin. This is why any form of speech that incites hatred and violence should be banned.

When we give the state the responsibility to protect our rights and freedoms, above all we are asking it to preserve our security and dignity as human beings. Hate speech in Germany is unconstitutional because citizens there refuse to allow antidemocratic forces to use the protection of the state to undermine it. In Canada, any law limiting freedom of speech is revoked on the basis of frustrating “the pursuit of truth, participation in the community, or individual self-fulfillment and human flourishing,” according to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. There is absolutely nothing in hate speech fitting this description. All hate speech does is create a destructive environment where human dignity is endangered, where the individuals targeted are reduced to nothing more than the stigmatized features of the attacked group, suppressing their diversity of character, suppressing their right to be respected. Human dignity is worth limiting that has that effect on people.

Concerns about human security also make limiting speech worthwhile. When extremist clerics preach in public spaces to the youth of the Muslim community, commanding them to join jihad forces, and when they gain so much attention that their image is almost glamorized, it is the state’s duty to intervene.

When the media bombards us with images of these clerics shouting “death to democracy,” as the United Kingdom’s Omar Bakri does, we should never forget that these words were also shouted a few decades ago by a deranged person in Germany who actually succeeded in bringing death to much more than just democracy. No one doubts the effects of state propaganda, even of commercial advertising on people’s psyche. Can we be naive enough to ignore the effects of hate speech?
There is, of course, another side of the story. When these clerics get all the attention in the media, they incite violence against Muslims. With their distorted understanding of Islam, they make their faith sound as if it were mainstream, marginalizing moderate Muslims.

Hate speech not only suppresses the victims’ rights, but also the community from which the speaker comes. A cycle of hatred is thus created. Because multiculturalism and democracy are primordial values Canada wishes to protect, hate speech must be banned once and for all.

L. El H.

A society’s level of tolerance for freedom of expression is necessarily linked to the expression of unpopular ideas, since popular ideas will always be protected by virtue of their very popularity.

Hate speech laws exist to protect people from violence, but it seems more likely that people who are willing to commit crimes against a person based on their nationality, race, sex, et cetera, probably did not decide to do so because of an Internet article. It is more likely that these people were unstable to begin with. It would be absurd to claim that the average person will go from being a law-abiding citizen to committing discriminatory assaults based on what they read on a white-supremacist web site, for example.

Apart from their complete lack of actual effect, hate speech laws are problematic because what constitutes hate speech is utterly arbitrary. Most complaints are arbitrated by the Canadian Human Rights Commission, which applies much less rigorous standards than criminal hate speech trials. Under this model, people file complaints against their political or ideological opponents. This is a serious problem for a free society: that you can tell on someone for hurting your feelings, when in fact, there might be some truth or value to their criticism.

The right to freedom of expression is fundamentally important to a democratic society, but hate speech laws place the “right” to not be offended by speech ahead of the right of expression. If offence is the actual metric that we are applying, then there should be no speech at all, since anything could be interpreted as offensive or capable of inciting hatred.

What’s more, under the current system, we seem to grant more power to those that have a lower “hurt feelings” threshold. For example, communities and groups that think it is valuable not to respond to hatred in any way have no power even if horrible things are said about them. On the other hand, individuals that have no problem complaining about the slightest offence hold the power to stifle any expression, and their power lies in how easily they are offended.

Even if one does not buy that free speech is important in this case, the effect that these laws have on hateful speech is tremendously harmful. Firstly, the people that hold these fringe views can claim that the government is persecuting them because of their views. Hate speech laws also push fringe ideas into the mainstream: the ideas that were previously expressed in the most extreme way possible are now disguised. Hateful speech still originates from the same underlying hatred, but instead of being easy to identify and ignore, it’s now wrapped up in an appealing package.

Worst of all, in order to defend free speech, the mainstream needs to reaffirm the rights of racists to express their ideas. Thus those who hold these destructive ideas can gain the additional credibility of being defenders of free speech.


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