Should hate speech have room in public discourse in the U.S., where protections for permissible speech are broad and only immediate and clear threats fall outside the first amendment? New study “Boundaries of Hate: Ethical Implications of the Discursive Construction of Hate Speech in U.S. Opinion Journalism” by Brett Gregory Johnson, Ryan J. Thomas and Kimberly Kelling of University of Missouri investigates the complex relation journalism has with speech freedoms.
Hate speech and the duties of journalism
Hate speech, however, is often where minorities have to bear the brunt of libertarian commitment to all speech, but journalism is also dependent on freedom of expression.
Competing ‘duties’ exist: such as the duty to educate the audience, to champion freedom of expression, the duty to minimize harm, and the duty to promote deliberative democracy and its norms on communication.
Support for hate speech related to libertarian all-or nothing proposition
The article analyses how hate speech has been presented, discursively constructed in U.S. newspaper editorials over a 21-year period, a sample of 335 texts from a total of 48 newspapers were included. They were op-eds and opinion pieces.
The most prominent theme was that in U.S. opinions and editorials, there was a commitment to a libertarian norm where even hateful ideas should be allowed a public forum – being ideally countered by better arguments in a free marketplace of ideas. The marketplace, on the other hand, can fire people who have expressed hateful ideas, as this is not government suppression.
However, a “safety valve” discourse was used by very few in the sample, where terrorist acts are seen rising from the suppression of censored speech as was claimed to be in the case of Breivik.
A more worrying finding in the analysis was that the term “hate speech” itself was used as rhetorical weapon. Similarly, claims of moral equivalence were attempted by particularly right-wing against left-wingers, who disputed them.
In conclusion, the authors argue that the articulations for free speech and hate speech were rather thinly theorized by op-ed writers. They acknowledge that discourses on social media were purposefully excluded – which may have lead to only 48 U.S. newspapers being in the sample.
The article “Boundaries of Hate: Ethical Implications of the Discursive Construction of Hate Speech in U.S. Opinion Journalism” was published in the Journal of Media Ethics. (limited access).
Picture: Hatespeech symbols from social media on a printed booklet by Mika Baumeister, license Unsplash