Hate speech is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as "public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation". Hate speech is "usually thought to include communications of animosity or disparagement of an individual or a group on account of a group characteristic such as race, colour, national origin, sex, disability, religion, or sexual orientation". A legal definition of hate speech varies from country to country.
There has been much debate over freedom of speech, hate speech and hate speech legislation. The laws of some countries describe hate speech as speech, gestures, conduct, writing, or displays that incite violence or prejudicial actions against a group or individuals on the basis of their membership in the group, or which disparage or intimidate a group or individuals on the basis of their membership in the group. The law may identify a group based on certain characteristics. In some countries, hate speech is not a legal term. Additionally, in some countries, including the United States, much of what falls under the category of "hate speech" is constitutionally protected. In other countries, a victim of hate speech may seek redress under civil law, criminal law, or both.
A majority of developed democracies have laws that restrict hate speech, including Australia, Denmark, France, Germany, India, South Africa, Sweden, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The United States does not have hate speech laws, since the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that laws criminalizing hate speech violate the guarantee to freedom of speech contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
Laws against hate speech can be divided into two types: those intended to preserve public order and those intended to protect human dignity. The laws designed to protect public order require that a higher threshold be violated, so they are not often enforced. For example, a 1992 study found that only one person was prosecuted in Northern Ireland in the preceding 21 years for violating a law against incitement to religious violence. The laws meant to protect human dignity have a much lower threshold for violation, so those in Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and the Netherlands tend to be more frequently enforced.
The global nature of the internet makes it difficult to set limits or boundaries to cyberspace. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) states that "any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence shall be prohibited by law". The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) prohibits all incitement to racism. Concerning the debate over how freedom of speech applies to the Internet, conferences concerning such sites have been sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. "Direct and public incitement to commit genocide" is prohibited by the 1948 Genocide Convention.
On 31 May 2016, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter, jointly agreed to a European Union code of conduct obligating them to review "[the] majority of valid notifications for removal of illegal hate speech" posted on their services within 24 hours.
Prior to this in 2013, Facebook, with pressure from over 100 advocacy groups including the Everyday Sexism Project, agreed to change their hate speech policies after data released regarding content that promoted domestic and sexual violence against women led to the withdrawal of advertising by 15 large companies.
Companies that have hate speech policies include Facebook and YouTube. In 2018 a post containing a section of the United States Declaration of Independence that labels Native Americans "merciless Indian savages" was labeled hate speech by Facebook and removed from its site. In 2019, video-sharing platform YouTube demonetized channels, such as U.S. radio host Jesse Lee Peterson, under their hate speech policy.
Several activists and scholars have criticized the practice of limiting hate speech. Civil liberties activist Nadine Strossen says that, while efforts to censor hate speech have the goal of protecting the most vulnerable, they are ineffective and may have the opposite effect: disadvantaged and ethnic minorities being charged with violating laws against hate speech. Kim Holmes, Vice President of the conservative Heritage Foundation and a critic of hate speech theory, has argued that it "assumes bad faith on the part of people regardless of their stated intentions" and that it "obliterates the ethical responsibility of the individual". Rebecca Ruth Gould, a professor of Islamic and Comparative Literature at the University of Birmingham, argues that laws against hate speech constitute viewpoint discrimination (prohibited by First Amendment jurisprudence in the United States) as the legal system punishes some viewpoints but not others, however other scholars such as Gideon Elford argue instead that "insofar as hate speech regulation targets the consequences of speech that are contingently connected with the substance of what is expressed then it is viewpoint discriminatory in only an indirect sense." John Bennett argues that restricting hate speech relies on questionable conceptual and empirical foundations and is reminiscent of efforts by totalitarian regimes to control the thoughts of their citizens.
Michael Conklin argues that there are positive benefits to hate speech that are often overlooked. He contends that allowing hate speech provides a more accurate view of the human condition, provides opportunities to change people's minds, and identifies certain people that may need to be avoided in certain circumstances. According to one psychological research study, a high degree of psychopathy is "a significant predictor" for involvement in online hate activity, while none of the other 7 criteria examined were found to have statistical significance.
Political philosopher Jeffrey W. Howard considers the popular framing of hate speech as "free speech vs. other political values" as a mischaracterization. He refers to this as the "balancing model", and says it seeks to weigh the benefit of free speech against other values such as dignity and equality for historically marginalized groups. Instead, he believes that the crux of debate should be whether or not freedom of expression is inclusive of hate speech. Research indicates that when people support censoring hate speech, they are motivated more by concerns about the effects the speech has on others than they are about its effects on themselves. Women are somewhat more likely than men to support censoring hate speech due to greater perceived harm of hate speech, which researchers believe may be due to gender differences in empathy towards targets of hate speech.