WaPo editorial "Why America needs a hate speech law"

The editorial is by Richard Stengel, MSNBC analyst and former Time magazine editor and U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

Problems with attempts to control hate speech always begin with defining the term. Stengel acknowledges this (“there’s no agreed-upon definition of what hate speech actually is”) and offers two:

He includes examples of speech he considers problematic - but these don’t all conform well to his definitions:

(I’m stunned that an intelligent person, even if he disagreed, would not find it easy to give reasons why some people might want to protect that.)

So this isn’t just a push to change the First Amendment - it makes sense only if there’s some sort of Ministry of Truth to decide whether troublesome speech qualifies as “hateful”. Which inevitably leads to the effective definition: Hate speech is whatever those with enforcement authority deem troublesome.

This editorial is not one of a kind. Here’s a recent one from the NY Times: Free Speech Is Killing Us.

What’s up with this push in national newspapers - formerly bastions of free speech love - toward unprecedented restrictions on it?

My objection to a hate-speech law isn’t so much such a law itself, as it is that it would be unequally applied. It would probably be a case of “It’s hate speech if Group X does it, but not if Group Y does it, even if by definition they’re both protected groups.”

Check out the photo that accompanies the editorial with this caption: “Thousands of protesters march against a planned 'Free Speech Rally” on Aug. 19, 2017, in Boston."

One of the protest signs reads “Silence is Violence”. It’s not a big step from that to “Failure to Denounce” laws: you commit a crime if you overhear “hate speech” (as defined this week by the Ministry of Truth) and stay silent instead of reporting it.

I have the same objection that I always do.

The government is supposed to shut down hate speech. Trump is President, and there is a narrow majority of conservatives on the Supreme Court, and the GOP controls the Senate. I seriously doubt if now is a good time to give the government the power to regulate what might or might not incite violence.

I also seriously doubt if it would be a good time if the Dems take over Congress and the White House.

“I think group X is disgusting and wrong, and whatever they want should be rejected absolutely”. There is no way to define group X narrowly enough so that I could agree with a law banning the statement.

IMO Mr. Stengel rather badly misses the point.

The distinction between the two types cannot be articulated, because it doesn’t exist.

If I hate the speech, then the speech is inciting hate, by definition. It then becomes simply a question of who gets to hate, and who doesn’t.


There is always a worrying subset of hate-speech-law supporters whose true motivation isn’t shutting down hate speech, but seeking a legislative weapon with which to squelch opponents.

Hate speech laws are censorship. Let the haters identify themselves in their speech and deal with that. I want those people shut down, but not by restricting free speech, that is guaranteed to come back and bite us all in the ass.

And as long as they are never named they become the perfect strawman when you have no legitimate reason to oppose hate speech regulations.

I’m not even sure it’s a subset.

When the NYT publishes an opinion piece calling for the government to outlaw flag desecration or to silence Maxine Waters or Joe Biden, we can talk. Until then, it’s more “free speech for me but not for thee”.


In what country do you imagine Biden would have been violating hate speech laws? You seem to have a comically poor understanding of the subject to bring up an article about Biden and frigging De Niro wishing they could punch Trump. If you can’t understand how burning an American flag is fundamentally different than talking about say, evicting all Muslims from the country I suggest you try harder to understand.

***** a laundry list of pre-established categories.

Yes, this.

But not so much because I think we should not have protected categories, formally or informally; I do think history, and hence a cultural awareness of people who were disenfranchised or marginalized over a long period of time, is relevant and has bearing on people’s current situation.


I really dislike the notion that we’ve got all the categorical oppressions identified, got 'em knocked right down into this here plastic box, know what they are, know who the players are, yep, if you’re on the list you’ve been a victim of social injustice, if you’re not, shut the fuck up and get in line, o privileged spoiled one.

I dislike it because it substitutes an assembled list for the responsibility to listen to people.

Dumb editorial and a dumb idea, IMO. I’m all for social condemnation and consequences (i.e. shunning, shaming, boycotts, etc.) for hate speech – and very serious such consequences when it’s particularly egregious, or from someone with a lot of power. But I think government consequences would help the hateful, by making them martyrs and victims.

EDIT: I don’t have a problem with criminalizing threats and advocacy for violence (i.e. “kill the Jews!”), which I think goes well beyond hate speech.

A country that implemented Stengel’s suggestions about curtailing free speech, for instance

There isn’t anything wrong with my understanding. Punching people is violence, and saying you want to punch someone could cause violence, and is therefore by Stengel’s standrad hate speech that should be curtailed.

Again, there is no problem with my understanding. Because burning an American flag is not different from talking about evicting Muslims. Both can cause violence, both can arouse hatred in others, both are therefore hate speech by Stengel’s definition.

The only difference is who hates the message. Which goes back to what I said - if it is only hate speech if it offends me but not if it offends you, that is not a useful definition of hate speech.


Then maybe you should stop pushing that self-serving definition.

So what is the definition of hate speech to use?

No, you clearly misunderstand. In no country that has passed hate speech laws would Biden’s musings about punching Trump be covered. There’s other laws about “incitement to violence” maybe.

From various dictionaries: “abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation.”

From Wiki: “Hate speech is a statement intended to demean and brutalize another, or the use of cruel and derogatory language on the basis of real or alleged membership in a social group. Hate speech is speech that attacks a person or a group on the basis of protected attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”

QFT +1

Hate speech, like art, is in the eye of the beholder. Doubt you’ll get any of the partisans here (or anywhere) to admit that their side is even capable of hate speech, let alone ever guilty of it. Gee whilikers, man, don’t you realize that the other side is evil?

Under those definitions, saying “American people are brutal warmongers” would be hate speech.

From the opinion piece:

That’s easy. Individuals either check the underlying sources themselves and come to their own conclusions, or they trust someone else to do that for them. Someone like a journalist.

The Russian interference via social media is at its heart a trust problem. Media scrutiny is a life skill that should be given more emphasis in schools and in parenting. Not everything on the internet is true.

Instituting a form of censorship does not solve the core problem, because the censor is ultimately susceptible to corruption and lies, too. Taken to an extreme, you get something like N. Korea or Chinese political debate.


There has been a frightening decline in support for the principle of free speech in this country.