The thin line between freedom of speech and hate speech | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 30, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:18 AM, June 30, 2019

The thin line between freedom of speech and hate speech

We live in the age of liberalism. We get to speak out about things in public that would have been considered as unacceptable centuries ago. We are now able to speak up against inequality, point out flaws in our society, and express our personal opinions on a great deal of matters.

However, there are some malicious “opinions” that manage to make their way out. Opinions that reek of ill intentions and toxic ideologies. Personally, I believe that opinions should be shared with others. But when one vehemently sticks to opinions/ideologies that are toxic, even when ample proof is provided that shows that the contentious opinion has been greatly criticised to be wrong, then we have a problem.

What’s worse is when people begin to express and condone such contentious and highly criticised opinions that could potentially harm or humiliate others.

In order for an opinion/ideology to be termed as “hate speech”, it must attack an existing ideology, or threaten to harm or to humiliate a certain group of people.

Merriam-Webster defines freedom of speech as “The right to express information, ideas, and opinions free of government restrictions based on content and subject only to reasonable limitations.” Hate speech is defined as “Speech that is intended to insult, offend, or intimidate a person because of some trait (as race, religion, sexual orientation, national origin, or disability).”

Free speech consists of all forms of media, whether it’s spoken, art, films, print media, TV broadcast, social media, etc. One hundred percent freedom can never be guaranteed, as some form of limitation will definitely exist. The more we are able to speak up, the more we can change our surroundings for the better.

However, it is this very freedom of speech that gives the opportunity to voice hate speech. As already mentioned, in order for an opinion/ideology to be termed as “hate speech”, it must attack an existing ideology, or threaten to harm or to humiliate a certain group of people. Slander, libel, personal attacks, etc., fall into the purview of hate speech.

Back in 2015, a terrorist attack targeted the Paris offices of the French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo. Twelve people were killed in the attack, including publishing director Charb. Brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi were the main suspects. The brothers were later shot dead by the French police, according to the BBC.

These murders were in no way justifiable, even though the publication featured distasteful depictions of religious figures of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, along with cartoons that lampooned theists. Some argue that the magazine’s work could be labelled as hate speech that attacked others’ ideals in the least subtle way possible. Yes, the magazine did mock right-leaning parties and their members too, but perhaps the methods that it used could have been more refined and less offensive.

Theists have their own share of bigotry in the sense of hate speech. The easiest and the most recognisable “theist” group that comes into mind that spreads hate speech would be ISIS, with their xenophobic, misogynistic and homophobic views and misinformation being fed to people of the land they once conquered.

Extremist theists aside, theists also spew hatred among themselves, against people of other beliefs, races or sexual orientation. You really don’t need to look very far to find proof of this. In the context of Bangladesh especially, the simplest way of doing that for yourself is to go to any news portal page or group on Facebook, and check the comments on them.

We all have an ugly side within us that always tries to wriggle its way out to the public through hate speech. But it is upto us to draw the line where hate speech begins.

We should try to listen to what the other party has to say instead of vehemently sticking to our own opinions. Once we hear them out, we should think about the opinion we just heard and try to reply in a calm and patient way and explain why we agree or disagree with the said opinion. Staying quiet won’t change someone’s bigoted views nor will an angry letter that is meant to be a death threat. If we really want our message to be conveyed, we should do it in a way that doesn’t aggressively attack the listener’s points of view.

Free speech is a great tool for change and we should use it wisely instead of misusing it to incite violent outbursts. Free speech can bring about real change in society when used right. Just take the hatred out of it.


Araf Momen Aka is an undergraduate student of Jahangirnagar University and a contributor to SHOUT, The Daily Star. He can be reached at akaaraf@hotmail.com.


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