Free speech or hate speech?

How to discern between these commonly confused terms

George Bell
17th May 2022
Image from Unsplash @Jason Leung

As social media and the internet have grown and evolved in recent years, so have the methods in which we converse and voice our opinions. But as this development happened, the lines between free speech and hate speech have become hopelessly tangled. So what really is the difference?

In order to understand how they differ and why they are confused so often, it needs to be understood what each actually is. The Cambridge Dictionary defines them as follows.

Free Speech

The right to express your opinions publicly.

Hate Speech

Public speech that expresses hate or encourages violence towards a person or group based on something such as race, religion, sex, or sexual orientation

Just from the definitions, it is clear how free speech can quickly evolve into hate speech. You can’t have the latter without the former, showing a slippery slope. Free speech is given a much broader definition, encapsulating everything that can be spoken in public, whereas hate speech focuses on personal prejudices against minorities. The definition of free speech focuses on the person speaking while hate speech focuses on the person being spoken to, which details the real difference between these two forms of communication. 

Free speech is an opinion that affects only yourself, whereas hate speech is an opinion that directly affects someone else.

Free speech is given a much broader definition, encapsulating everything that can be spoken in public, whereas hate speech focuses on personal prejudices against minorities.

But now that we have an idea of how they differ, why do they get confused so often? The answer seems to reside within the hellscape that is social media. Hidden behind screens across the globe, we think our opinions are directed at no one in particular, which contradicts the reality that they are being shared with any who has an internet connection.

The biggest issue with hate speech, and by extension free speech, is that while freedom of speech is an inherent right, it does not exclude a person from the repercussions those words may have. Social media has accentuated this significantly, leading many to believe they are invincible keyboard warriors, releasing transphobic, racist, or xenophobic rants from behind a supposed shield of “free speech”. Chances are, you have encountered hate speech defended as the fundamental right of free speech, when in fact it really isn’t. This is especially an issue in America with the First Amendment, leading many to believe that their hateful words are protected by law. 

Spending the past two years in a pandemic has often made us unable to interact with people and develop new opinions and ideas. This has taken a toll on the difference between these methods of communication, making it unsurprising how confused the two get. It is something we all need to spend time understanding and distinguishing. 

Next time you are hovering over the send button on that “hit” tweet, consider which groups your words will circle around and whether or not it is free speech or hate speech.

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AUTHOR: George Bell
One half film addict, one part computer nerd. All parts Croc lover

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