Is 'hate speech' illegal?

There's been a lot of talk recently about just what constitutes "hate speech." Is one person's hate speech another person's "free speech," as guaranteed by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution?

First, it's essential to understand just what rights the First Amendment guarantees. It states in part that "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press..." That means that the government can't restrict a person's right to say whatever he or she wants. Private entities can, however.

What many people deem hate speech has become increasingly prevalent on social media sites, and the operators of those sites are taking action. Facebook has notified users that it will take action against those whose posts include hate speech and remove those posts. This includes posts that joke about domestic violence, sexual abuse and rape, as well as posts that contain language that the company considers to be harmful or even in poor taste, if it is reported.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled in more than one case that hate speech, whether it's shouted, written on signs or portrayed by symbols, is not in and of itself illegal -– not matter how offensive others may find it.

One law professor notes, "One is as free to condemn, for instance, Islam -- or Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, or whites, or illegal immigrants, or native-born citizens -- as one is to condemn capitalism or socialism or Democrats or Republicans."

When hate speech involves threats, that's another matter. A person can be charged with a crime for threatening or harassing someone, whether he or she intended to actually hurt the alleged victim or not.

Of course, it's best, for your own well-being and everyone else's, to be careful what you write or say that people may find offensive in a public forum. However, if you find yourself facing criminal charges, an experienced Connecticut attorney can provide guidance.

Source: FindLaw, "Facebook 'Hate Speech': Is It Free Speech?," Betty Wang, JD, accessed Aug. 22, 2017