Freedom of speech and hate speech

Why is it so important to draw a dividing line between freedom of speech and hate speech?

Hate speech rarely gravitates around the yes-or-no line, black-and-white. There are different opinions on how it should be classified and what should be done on this issue.

If certain words are defined as ‘hate speech,’ then this type of behavior should not be tolerated. Otherwise, we should recognize the right of one person to speak in a way that infringes on the fundamental human rights and dignity of another. This naturally means that to a large extent the definition of ‘hate speech’ will depend on which word is hateful and which is not, and hence what our judgment would be on how to distinguish them.

Unfortunately, this distinction is very difficult because different people and countries treat freedom of speech differently. In the United States, for example, most people would be reluctant to oppose hate speech. For them, this term is associated only with the most severe cases of hate speech, such as a direct threat to human life and security. On the other hand, Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

Freedom of speech is fundamental to any action to protect human rights and deal with hate speech. Although some forms of abuse and hatred can be unpleasant and many others even racist, any attempt to limit or eliminate hate speech must take into account the rights of both parties. This includes the rights of those who express hatred. It sounds strange at first glance, but

respect for human rights is almost always a matter of balancing the various claims to rights.

Freedom of speech, or the right to free expression, is seen as a fundamental human right mainly for two reasons: first, because it is important to the individual, and second, because it is important to society. Freedom of expression is one of those ‘basic needs’ that are essential to human dignity. Without freedom of expression, democracy could not function; without democracy, human rights are not protected.

People’s thoughts, beliefs and convictions are an important part of their identity. Restricting one’s right to express oneself deprives one’s personality of open and full expression: this in turn has a detrimental effect on one’s identity. To a large extent, human rights are about maintaining personal control—autonomy—over our own lives. Restricting people’s freedom of expression also limits their ability to participate fully and actively in society.

Participation is also a basic human right, both as a form of social interaction and as a way to influence collective decisions in society. Participation is central to democracy and citizenship. Despite the serious reasons for defending freedom of speech, human rights law also recognizes that speech itself is an ‘action’ that can harm others and even be a threat to society as a whole.

For this reason, freedom of expression is one of the rights that may—and sometimes is even necessary—be restricted in certain circumstances. It is necessary to maintain a balance between the ability of people to express their inner thoughts and the guarantee that this will not infringe on anyone else’s rights or cause greater harm to society.

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The biggest challenge in defining the limits of freedom of speech is the difficulty of categorizing certain words and actions as hate speech. There is a fine line between freedom of expression and the moment from which this freedom of expression becomes hate speech. Freedom of expression inevitably includes expressions that may “offend, shock or embarrass” certain groups in society. Hence, what seems like a word of hatred to someone is just a shocking expression to another. That is why, within the old continent, the European Court of Human Rights is trying to set out viewpoints and perspectives on what hate speech and freedom of expression are.


  • Lechtimiakyte, I. 2014. Hate Speech in a Nutshell. (Infinite Opportunities Association, private archive).
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