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This Critical Debate is part of a Debate Comparison:

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Duration
30-60 minutes
Topic(s)
  • Constitution
  • Current Events
Grade(s)
  • 8-12
  • College/University

THE CASE

You are a U.S. representative in Congress and constituents from your district have approached you about proposing a federal law to ban hate speech on the internet. Hate speech attacks certain individuals or groups on the basis of attributes they cannot change, such as their skin color, national origin, religion, gender or ability. Although hate crimes are illegal, the expression of hateful ideas without violent or harassing actions is protected by the First Amendment. Your constituents believe hate speech itself should be criminalized. They believe that this type of speech is increasing thanks to social media, and that its growing reach makes it more dangerous.

In support of their position, the constituents point to Germany. There, hate speech has been illegal since shortly after World War II. The country also recently passed a law to expand government control over hate speech online. The law requires social media companies such as Facebook to remove “obviously illegal” content, including hate speech, within 24 hours of receiving a complaint or face massive fines. German officials passed the law because they believe that hateful messages spreading online contributed to tension and even violent clashes in their country.

It’s clear that hate speech causes genuine distress for some in your community and that they fear it could feed into the same kinds of conflict and violence seen in Germany. You have seen firsthand the type of inflammatory and even repulsive posts your constituents want to ban, and you agree that they are difficult to stomach. But you also know that banning a particular type of speech should not be taken lightly and would come with many practical challenges.

Should you sponsor legislation to ban hate speech and control its spread online?

  1. No. Banning online hate speech is impractical and likely illegal.

     

    New technology may make certain types of offensive speech more visible, but the First Amendment has survived new challenges in the past. Blocking this type of content may protect people with extreme and hateful views from the public scrutiny they deserve by driving them underground.

  2. Yes. Words matter, and this type of message could lead to some populations being harmed.

    If the government refuses to censor hate speech, it sends the message that it is okay. Speech that singles out and attacks certain individuals or groups of people could ultimately put these populations in danger and should be out of bounds.

  • What is hate speech? How would you define it? Who should define what does or does not fall under this category of speech?
  • How would you argue for and against First Amendment protection for hate speech?
  • How are online expressions of hate the same and different from other forms of hate speech, such as public speeches or protests? Consider the possible reach, audience and impact.
  • Who is in the best position to regulate the kind of speech we see on social media: governments, individual users, or the websites themselves?
  • What are the dangers of having unlimited speech rights on the internet? What are the dangers of limiting speech rights?
  • Should all countries abide by the same social media restrictions? Why or why not?
  • How does having some content visible in certain countries but not in others change the type of conversation or speech that is possible on social media sites?

 

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