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Free speech experts discuss hate speech laws at College of Law

November 02, 2012

The comparison of U.S. and European hate speech laws was the focus of a debate on Friday, Oct. 26, between two renowned free speech experts, Jeremy Waldron and James Weinstein. The event, attended by more than 400 people, was held at the College of Law at ASU and organized by its Center for Law and Global Affairs.

Waldron, a University Professor at NYU School of Law and author of the recent book, "The Harm in Hate Speech," and Weinstein, Amelia Lewis Professor of Constitutional Law at the College of Law, participated in a discussion titled, “The Legal Response to Hate Speech: Should the U.S. be more like Europe?”

The debate was moderated by Peter de Marneffe, a philosophy professor at ASU, and co-sponsored by the Campus Environment Team, the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics and the Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict at ASU.

The two debaters revealed divergent perspectives on free speech. Weinstein, author of the book, "Hate Speech, Pornography and the Radical Attack on the Free Speech Doctrine," and co-editor of "Extreme Speech and Democracy," is an expert on American free speech doctrine. He generally supports the U.S. courts’ broad constitutional protections of hate speech. Waldron, in contrast, is willing to consider regulations, common in Europe and Canada, restricting virulent hate speech that is intended to alienate vulnerable minorities.

Waldron said many European nations have already adopted regulations on hate speech as a means of protecting human dignity. He specifically cited laws in the United Kingdom as an example of how to balance restrictions on speech with the core values of free expression and democratic discourse.

“This is a limit on free speech,” Waldron said. “The question is whether it’s worth it.”

Waldron expressed a special concern for the real harm posed by hate speech, especially for disempowered groups. “This is part of a response to an increasingly diversifying population,” he said. “The issue is, are vulnerable minorities strong enough to shrug off threats and other hateful speech?”

Weinstein argued against restrictions on hate speech as part of public discourse, as opposed to those on face-to-face verbal assaults or hate speech in the workplace, restrictions he supports. 

Following the debate, Weinstein summarized his position, saying, “Racists and other types of bigots say hateful things not just to alienate minorities or to make contact with other bigots, but to try and convince the rest of us to see the world the way they do, and often as part of a protest to laws and policies with which they disagree. But even bigots have a right to participate in the political process by contributing to public opinion, as nauseating as that opinion may be.

“And just as anti-war protestors have a right to use profanity or burn the American flag, so, too, do racists have a right to use virulent or obnoxious words or symbols to express their views,” Weinstein said.

Douglas Sylvester, dean of the College of Law, said the debate exemplifies the vibrant intellectual life at the College of Law and is one of many such important events this academic year.

“Being a great law school means hosting events that provoke and educate,” Sylvester said. “This debate, between two of the leading authorities in the world on freedom of speech, is one great example.”

To watch a video of the debate, click here.