Hate Speech: The History of An American Controversy

By Samuel Walker | Go to book overview

4
The Hateful and the Hated: The Jehovah's Witnesses and the Emergence of a National Policy

Toward a National Policy

In the early 1940s a national policy on hate speech began to emerge, its central thrust being a broad commitment to the protection of offensive speech. Grounded in the First Amendment as interpreted by the Supreme Court, it was truly national, overriding the patchwork of state and local laws and practices. This new policy was still only partially formed by the end of World War II; several important ambiguities and unanswered questions remained. Nonetheless, the general outlines were clear and would set the direction for the development of American law in the future.

At this critical juncture, moreover, American policy diverged radically from international trends. Laws prohibiting hate speech, or what was generally referred to as racial and religious propaganda, were enacted by most other countries.1 These laws followed the mandate of the various international statements on human rights issued after the war. Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, stated that "All [people] are equal before the law" and "are entitled to equal protection against any discrimination in violation of this Declaration and against any incitement to such discrimination." Subsequent human rights agreements included more specific prohibitions on offensive racial and religious expression,2 codifying the similar provisions of pre-World War II European anti-Fascist laws. World War II was

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