What Is Hate Speech? We Asked College Students

Should the U.S. join other countries in regulating certain speech? Can people even agree on what 'hate speech' is?


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What do you think of when you hear the term "hate speech"? For many, it conjures images of torch-wielding mobs in Charlottesville or right-wing provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos. For some, such conduct seems reprehensible enough to merit government regulation.

But it turns out that defining "hate speech" isn't as easy as pointing to extreme examples of bigotry and racism.

In the United States, the First Amendment grants absolute protection of even the most vile speech, as long as it doesn't directly incite violence. There is no special legal treatment of hateful words. But the tide may be turning. 40 percent of Americans now believe the government should regulate so-called "hate speech."

Many developed countries, including Canada and much of Europe, have passed laws that criminalize certain speech deemed hateful. France has prosecuted comedians for Facebook posts, the U.K. has imprisoned people for offensive tweets, and Germany threatened to prosecute a comic over a poem about Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Social media examples have also demonstrated how speech codes often backfire and hurt the very minorities they are intended to protect. Though Facebook and Twitter are private companies free to ban whatever they like on their platforms, their attempts to control hateful speech have resulted in bans of feminists for saying that "all men are trash," and rapper Lil B was suspended for posting "White people are the only ones who really love they guns U can tell they are violent people!"

College campuses have become the epicenter of the free speech debate, with incidents of college students shouting down and even physically attacking controversial speakers becoming increasingly common in recent years. So we headed to the University of Southern California to see if students there could define "hate speech" for us, and whether they thought it should be outlawed.

Many who desired government intervention were motivated by what they see as the rise in hateful rhetoric associated with Trumpism and the far right. But does it make sense to give the government more control over speech, when the government is run by people like Donald Trump?

Can speech ever be violence? Is bigotry and ignorance best countered via the free exchange of ideas or the criminal justice system? Do universities have more of an obligation to let students be challenged and possibly offended, or to protect them from "harmful" or "hateful" ideas?

We found opinions on campus that ran the gamut.

Produced by Zach Weissmueller and Justin Monticello. Hosted by Monticello. Edited by Weissmueller. Camera by Weissmueller and Monticello. Graphics by Brett Raney. Music by Elvis Herod.

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