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WAR OF WORDS - Where do we draw the line between free speech and hate speech?


Winning the fight for justice requires that you change the minds of those who disagree with you — or at least of the undecided. When the debate is passionate and increasingly divisive — Muslim mosques, gay marriage, abortion, immigration — what are the proper rules of engagement? How can you be true to yourself and your most strongly held beliefs, while respecting those who vehemently disagree with you?

Where legal lines may provide protection, they may not promote conversation or meaningful dialogue. Beyond drawing a bright legal line between free speech and hate speech, are there other ethical limits to how you can publicly express your opinion?

Where do we draw the line between speaking our mind and expressing hate?



  • Reading of suggested materials below
  • General understanding of the major issues in question:
    • The value of free speech
    • Traditional reasons for limiting free speech
    • The legal notion of "hate speech" and why it's controvesial



Most of these are short and intended to give the reader an introduction to the problem.







Do: Ask students to think about and discuss the following questions:

    • What is the value of "free speech"?


  • What reasons do we as a nation have to place some limits on freedom of expression?
  • "Hate speech" is a legal classification of a certain type of hateful speech - one which disparages a person or group based on a characteristic of the group (e.g. race or sexual orientation). Is hate speech morally worse than other types of hateful speech? Why?
  • Proponents of hate speech laws seek to protect the targets of hate speech, critics of such laws argue that freedom of speech allows one to express their beliefs - including those that regard entire groups negatively.
  • What groups, if any, should be protected by hate speech laws?
  • Some universities have attempted to adopt their own hate speech codes. Is this how educational institutions should balance the considerations of free speech and student protection?

* For additional ideas on assignments and lesson plan you might develop with this material, visit our Suggestions for incorporating lessons ethics into your course page.