Hate speech versus free speech by Lorna Costelloe

We’ve all heard the argument that hate speech is free speech. Finding a person who hasn’t heard the argument of “by telling me not to be homophobic/racist/sexist you’re being oppressive" is quite difficult.

But just how much truth is there to this? Is it possible to allow free speech without having hate speech? What is the real difference between the two? Sometimes it can be quite hard to understand how you can advocate against hate speech while still supporting free speech. I myself have found it difficult in the past to argue with people who claim that by telling them not to use hurtful language I am telling them that their opinions and beliefs are not ok, and that I am being oppressive to them.

Free speech is defined as the “right to express any opinions without censorship or restraint”. The official definition of Hate Speech is "Hate speech, as defined by the Council of Europe, covers all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance, including: intolerance expressed by aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism, discrimination and hostility against minorities, migrants and people of immigrant origin." While it may seem that the definition of free speech would extend to and include hateful speech, this is not the case.

Personally, I find the easiest way to explain the difference to people is to use personal stories. If you have an anecdote on hand, people are much more willing to listen to you, and more likely to understand your points. It is possible to convey your opinion without being hateful. You are entitled to tell someone your opinion, and they are entitled to reply with theirs – but you do not have to use language that intends to incite hatred against that person.

Less than a fortnight ago, I attended a course with several other people, many who I had never met before. One of the other students attending the course was the head of the Christian Union society. The topic of gay people came up, and we both expressed our opinions. They differed, and there was no way that the two of us would change our opinions, but he was very respectful, very polite and not at all hateful.

Though I completely disagreed with his view on the topic (and it is a topic that I get quite emotionally involved in and frustrated over), we were able to have a respectful conversation, pose questions to each other and answer each other’s questions on our views. Neither of us called each other names, or insulted each other, and that is the perfect example of someone exercising their free speech.

And that’s the difference between hate speech and free speech. No one is asking that anyone give up their right to free speech, all that is being asked is that when expressing that opinion everyone is respectful towards each other.