Offensive speech vs. hate speech

Is the term “illegal immigrants” hate speech?

In a press release today, the National Hispanic Media Coalition released a poll that it says shows media portrayals of Latinos and immigrants “are fueling rampant negative stereotypes among the general population that are diminishing perceptions of these groups throughout the United States.”

The group is asking the FCC — again — to study the “impacts of hate speech in media.”

The group said…

…after viewing just one minute of media content, poll respondents changed the way they view Latinos. When asked if Latinos were intelligent, those who consumed negative news and entertainment pieces were much more likely to rate Latinos as unintelligent, while those who consumed positive pieces were much more likely to rate Latinos as intelligent.

It doesn’t define what qualifies as “hate speech” in this context, however. It does say that one of the terms it says leads to the negative perception is the phrase, “illegal aliens.”

But does that make it “hate speech?”

Eugene Volokh, the legal scholar who writes The Volokh Conspiracy, doesn’t think so.

Now if people want to study how media affects people’s perceptions of Hispanics, Southerners, Muslims, evangelical Christians, gays, conservatives, or whomever else, that’s just fine, and can indeed be quite interesting. The media, and the formation of public opinion, are eminently reasonable topics for research.

But when (1) not just an advocacy group but Congressmen as well (2) ask the federal government entity that has the power to give and withdraw licenses, including based on media content, (3) to “study” “hate speech,” (4) with no definition but with examples broad enough to cover a vast range of commentary (express and implied), that strikes me as especially dangerous. And it ties in to leading international law scholars’ views about how restrictions on “hate speech” could be justified using international law norms (see the posts about the views of Prof. Peter Spiro and Dean Harold Koh).

Indeed, Peter Spiro, who writes at Opinio Juris, says that hate speech should be banned, as it is in European countries…

Call me a relativist. We have some pretty good empirical data from the scores of other countries that ban hate speech (in part through signing on to article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) that a permissive approach to hate speech is not a prerequisite to functioning democracy. On the contrary, our European friends would argue that democracy is better served by banning such material. Either way, our exceptionalism on this score doesn’t serve us very well.

Spiro writes his post in the aftermath of the embassy/consulate attacks over the film that spawned them. Others argue, however, that there is a difference between “offensive speech” and “hate speech.”

Discussion point: Where is that line?

  • Jim Shapiro

    “Illegal Alien” is pretty clearly more value laden than “undocumented immigrant”.

    Better yet, how about “Birthplace Challenged Highly Mobile Human Unburdened By Paperwork”?


  • Kurt Nelson

    The funny thing about the term “illegal alien” is the red herring it presents. Under the federal legal code, being in this country without documents is a civil misdemeanor, punishable with a fine not to exceed $250. This is, in the eyes of the government about the same as speeding or other moving violations. It is not a felony, it is not punishable by deportation, just a fine. So while there a civil offense, to call it illegal is not quite accurate.

    Now if you are sent back to your native country because you exceeded your stay, or committed a federal offense, and you return, again without documents, then it becomes a felony, which is a wholly different matter.

    Legislation to ban so called hate speech borders on legislating your thoughts, and we don’t practice that here. The 1st, gives allows you the right to say things that are offensive to some, and even hateful, but once we start going down that road, or which is hate and which is merely offensive, is a very dangerous road.

  • John P.

    //Discussion point: Where is that line?

    I’ll know it when I hear it?

  • Kassie

    I’m pro-hate speech, as in, I’m pro protecting the rights of people to say hateful things, even if against an entire group based on a protected class. It is just too slippery of a slope. For instance, banning “illegal alien” would be pretty far down that slope. After that would we ban “stupid girl” or ” d-bag frat brother?” Both girls and being in a fraternity are protected classes, unlike undocumented immigrants.

    First they came for the racists…

  • jon

    If “negative speech” influences our opinions so quickly, we aren’t very good at doing independent research… if only there was some sort of public institution that would teach people to think critically and give them some basic facts to apply to situations like this… Maybe some sort of school, we could require children to go to and get this level of critical thinking so that they can rationally approach arguments of both negative and hateful speech and either accept that while it may be negative it can also be true, or that it is in fact false and they can demand more from those they communicate with… Someday such and institution may exist.. until then I weep for humanity.