Free Speech Is Not Synonymous with Hate Speech

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There’s a petition doing the rounds, calling for the Government to end Hate Speech laws. The argument behind this petition is that these laws are ‘infringing peoples’ most basic rights to speak freely. Luckily, it has only garnered about a fifth of the signatures it calls for, but this rhetoric which bands free speech and hate speech together is a poisonous simplification which can only harm minorities.

Hate Speech Laws are a combination of several different laws from 1986-2006 criminalising speech which harasses or incites hatred on the grounds of race, religion or sexual orientation. This is the kind of thing which a healthy society should encourage. Free speech is the ability to express an opinion without Government censorship, but censorship is not the same as protecting people from verbal attacks. In a civilised society, it is important to be able to acknowledge the line between opinion and bigotry.

Our society should not be run by, or for, the people who want to express views which will alienate and divide us. Let me tell you something; if Katie Hopkins, Piers Morgan and Nigel Farage can all have platforms in this country despite the inflammatory, offensive and often completely unwarranted things they say, then we definitely do not have a problem with free speech. I can’t say I’m overly bothered; I’d much rather upset a racist or homophobic by denying them the ability to express these views than have people of colour or members of the LGBT+ community feel even more unsafe or unwanted within their community than they currently do.

The people who need a voice are not those who want to spread hate speech but rather its would-be victims. There has been a 29% rise in hate crime in England and Wales from 2016-2017 compared to 2015-2016, and there need to be legal rules in place preventing the spreading of such harmful ideas. Minorities need to be protected not only on the streets but also online, and not just from violence, but from harassment and abuse of any kind.

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me’ is a childhood rhyme, and the rhetoric that words have no consequences should remain firmly in childhood. Adults should be self-aware enough to know the damage that words can cause and accept that responsibility. If you really think the biggest victims of our society are the people who are unable to say offensive things, then maybe you need to re-evaluate the way you are looking at the world and the horrible prejudices that minorities face every day, even with hate speech laws.

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