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Hate speech and its protection

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by Cyndi Hyatt

This fall’s upcoming presidential election has created a national climate where people are politically polarized, and their speech is often incendiary.  Perhaps now is the perfect time to revisit with student journalists how speech is protected and unprotected, particularly with a focus on hate speech. 

My own students alerted me that hate speech is often misunderstood when they wanted to write an opinion piece calling for the ban of the KKK.  Naturally the topic of protected speech came up and led to a discussion on how even when speech is hateful, it is still protected under the Constitution.

Young and inexperienced student journalists often do not understand the complexities of how and why the First Amendment protects speech that is loathsome, cruel, unjust, ignorant and just plain ugly.

Cyndi Hyatt

Yes, there is growing sentiment the First Amendment should not protect hate speech that incites violence against others or is intended to provoke anger and maybe lead to retaliation.

Other countries in the world do not have such broad protections, so should we?   

Some argue hate speech protection allows organizations to hide behind the amendment with a free pass to spew hateful doctrines and ideas.   Proponents of hate speech protections say once shields for its expression are removed, what comes next?

Who defines what hate speech is?  Will it become politicized and affect our right to protest and criticize?  

photo of graffiti wall

I found this particular video by First Amendment scholar and UCLA professor Eugene Volokh  helpful for starting the classroom conversation and providing a basic understanding of the reasons behind protecting hate speech.

There are dozens of videos debating the idea of protecting hate speech, which students can watch and discuss, but I found this particular video by First Amendment scholar and UCLA professor Eugene Volokh  helpful for starting the classroom conversation and providing a basic understanding of the reasons behind protecting hate speech.

The debate over whether hate speech should continue to be protected is an important one, but until that protection is decided in court, journalism students should be aware of how and why it is considered free speech. 

From that understanding student journalists can use their voices to write opinion and feature pieces on the topic.   Open discussion, education and exchanges of ideas are what drive change and keep our democracy alive.

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