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Suzanne Nossel Criticizes ‘Incoherent’ Concept of ‘Hate Speech’

By June 7, 2016

Writing last week in The Washington Post, Suzanne Nossel, executive director of the PEN America Center, criticizes the growing trend of categorizing offensive speech as “hate speech.” As Nossel describes it, “‘hate speech’ is an incoherent concept that confuses more than it clarifies.” Nossel argues that the term hate speech encompasses what are actually three distinct categories: threats that are actually unlawful; speech that is offensive but legal; and speech that is illegal in some countries but not everywhere, such as Holocaust denial. She says overly broad definitions of hate speech aren’t just confusing; they’re unnecessary and even destructive.

Nossel explains that labeling and punishing some speech as “hate speech” is not necessary to prevent violence against protected groups because our laws do that already. That is, hate crime laws, which tack on additional penalties for already-illegal conduct, address crimes that are motivated by bias. So, labeling speech that is legal-but-biased as “hate speech” risks conflating pure speech with criminal conduct.

Proposals to curb hate speech, Nossel says, “assume a slippery slope between speech and violence.” Under this framework, she argues that in some parts of the world, “‘[h]ate speech’ is increasingly being used as a catch-all to reshape free expression rights in the direction of expanded government authority to curb and punish speech.”

On college campuses, this blurring between speech and conduct has led to a chilling effect on expression that has spilled over into the classroom. Nossel worries this attitude toward free speech is likely to enter into society at large as college students graduate and enter the workforce.

The piece is well-argued and worth reading in full.