Hate speech and distorted communication: rethinking the limits of incitement

Sarah Sorial*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Hate speech is commonly defined with reference to the legal category of incitement. Laws targeting incitement typically focus on how the speech is expressed rather than its actual content. This has a number of unintended consequences: first, law tends to capture overt or obvious forms of hate speech and not hate speech that takes the form of ‘reasoned’ argument, but which nevertheless, causes as much, if not more harm. Second, the focus on form rather than content leads to categorization errors. Hate speech taking the form of ‘reasoned argument’ is often legally characterized as either political or academic debate, and so is deemed both permissible and justified in societies where free speech principles exist. In this paper, I argue that it is important to identify instances of hate speech as hate speech, no matter how articulately or reasonably the speech is expressed. The danger in mischaracterizing an instance of hate speech by calling it academic or political debate is that it risks normalizing the views and sentiments that are expressed and accepting those views as an important part of our political and academic discourses. With reference to Habermas’ account of ‘distorted communication’, I propose different criteria for defining and understanding hate speech and suggest that there might be good reasons for interpreting the concept of incitement more broadly, so as to include these different kinds of it.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)299-324
Number of pages26
JournalLaw and Philosophy
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2015
Externally publishedYes


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