Hate speech is defined as the expression of hate towards a group of people. Notice the tremendous broadness of the definition. When expressing hate, do you need to specify your personal feeling of hate towards a group? Is the mere underlying disdain for a group of people enough to categorize the speech as hateful? And for that matter, who’s definition of hate is to be used when determining when a speech is hateful?
This issue is of immense importance to the public good as anti-hate speech laws in Australia are being used at this very moment to legally castigate those who have been found to have engaged in hate speech. By federal standards hate speech is categorized as “unlawful for a person to do an act, otherwise than in private, if the act is reasonably likely, in all the circumstances, to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people; and the act is done because of the race, colour or national or ethnic origin of the other person, or of some or all of the people in the group.”
Read through that sentence carefully. The term “reasonably likely” should terrify all of us as it allows the government to use their discretion as opposed to adhering to a reasonable set of pre-written standards that determine whether an action falls under the definition of what a certain law is meant to regulate. In other words, by saying speech is “reasonably likely to offend” a government bureaucrat has to determine whether a person’s words were offensive enough to be fall under the definition of hate speech and in doing so determining the person’s legal culpability. Are we to believe bias and political affiliation will not play into their decision-making process?
Now, the law will crack down on people who most of polite society won’t care to defend such as white supremacists or holocaust deniers, and though the allure of making what most people agree are bad people face legal consequences for unsavory rhetoric may be tempting, the larger picture lies with those whose rhetoric is not hateful, rather controversial or against the norm, as many may want to use these anti-hate speech laws to belittle their ability to express their opinions openly and freely. The uncomfortable truth is that no one’s right to speak freely and openly is safe unless everyone’s right to speak freely and openly is legally protected.
Progress, both intellectual and social, is inherently going to cause offence to someone. Social change and the disruption of norms are going to fly in the face of what many believe to be established and self-evident facts, a piece in the larger composition of one’s ideological identity, and when what one believes to be true is challenged then one’s reaction could be to feel offended and push back. Now you may not feel comfortable defending someone’s right to say deprecating things about a person based on sex, gender, or sexual orientation, but to defend one’s right to speak does not mean to endorse their views. Their right to say something egregious defends your right to counter the view, and only when everybody has the legally protected right to say what they chose will anybody’s right to free speech be safe.
Deputy Editor, The Unshackled
Host of the Front and Center Podcast