Freedom of Speech: Hate Speech and the Internet
by: Marni Cooper

Email: Marni Cooper
April 6, 2011

A 1st Amendment error has occurred

Home | Research for CST 515: Privacy and Technology | Freedom of Speech | Crime and Technology


Freedom of Speech is a right granted to every American under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The amendment was ratified on December 15, 1791 and it states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Parekh (2005) defines hate speech as "speech that expresses advocates, encourages, promotes or incites hatred of a group of individuals distinguished by a particular feature or set of features" and states that it has three essential features:

  1. Singles out an individual or a group of individuals on the basis of a certain characteristic;
  2. Stigmatizes it target by ascribing to it a set constitutive qualities that widely viewed as highly undesirable; and
  3. The target a group is placed outside the pale normal social relationship.


The First Amendment covers all Americans, regardless of race, religion, or sex. Due to technological advances, such as the internet, lawmakers have attempted to create additional laws to curtail hate speech on the internet, but most laws are not upheld because they violate the First Amendment. In the United States, many attempts to control hate speech, whether spoken, in print or on the internet, have been unsuccessful. While some laws have been created to provide protection "on the grounds of national security, obscenity, child pornography and a patently offensive speech directed at a captive audience or in work places" (Parekh, 2005), the United States falls short when compared to other countries because United States advocacy groups believe it interferes with First Amendment rights. Another source of difficulty is that the fluid nature of the internet, across national and international lines, make if difficult to apply and uphold domestic laws. (Siegle, 1999)

The internet is an ideal medium top promote hate speech because it enables individuals or hate groups to spread their message to a large audience with little to no effort. Posting on a website is no longer the singular problem. People can use text messaging or email capabilities to circulate the propaganda.

The Communications Decency Act of 1996 otherwise known as Title V of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, was created to protect children from indecent or obscene information on the internet (Siegle, 1999). After unconstitutional rulings by lower courts, the United States Supreme Court ruled the Act unconstitutional on June 26, 1997. In a suit brought about by the ACLU, the Supreme Court ruled that certain terms in the Act were vague and would be almost impossible to enforce criminal prosecution because the law would not stand up to the protection provided by the First Amendment.

Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, created by the United Nations, attempts to ban any promotion of national, racial, or religious hatred on the internet that may incite discrimination.

Moral, Social, and Ethical: The Pros and Cons of Hate Speech

From a hate group's perspective, the single most important benefit to using the internet to promote hate speech is that the internet is an ideal medium because it enables individuals or hate groups to spread their message to a large audience with little to no effort. Posting hate speech on the internet is no longer the single problem. People can use text messaging or email capabilities to circulate their propaganda. This proves to be an even larger problem to control or enforce. In addition, the anonymity of the internet is what drives hate speech and give it the chance to flourish.

Morally and socially, the consensus is that hate speech is not an appropriate use of language in society. Hate speech:

The problem with striking down hate speech altogether is that it violates the user's First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Free speech: