Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy

Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy

Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy

Hate Speech: The History of an American Controversy


The First Amendment protects even the most offensive forms of expression: racial slurs, hateful religious propaganda, and cross-burning. No other county in the world offers the same kind of protection to offensive speech.

How did this free speech tradition develop? Hate Speech provides the first comprehensive account of the history of the hate speech controversy in the United States. Samuel Walker examines the issue, from the conflicts over the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and American Nazi groups in the 1930s, tot he famous Skokie episode in 1977-78, and the campus culture wars of the 1990s.

The author argues that the civil rights movement played a central role in developing this country's strong free speech tradition. The courts were very concerned about protecting the provocative and even offensive forms of expression by civil rights forces. Civil rights groups, therefore, preferred to protect rather than restrict offensive speech-even if it meant protecting racist speech.


The names are all too familiar -- "nigger," "kike," "wop," "mick," "spic" -- words that carry the baggage of centuries of racism and empty it out in hate. These words are often aimed at people like bullets. They foretell danger and evoke the shame of the past: slavery, riots, massacres, the Holocaust.

If these words are so hateful and hurtful, why not outlaw them? Why not punish anyone who uses them in public to deliberately insult another person? Other forms of harm are punished; why not punish this one? The function of criminal law, after all, is to define the standards of civilized society and prescribe penalties for behavior that violates those standards.

These questions introduce the subject of this book: hate speech. The issue before us is whether offensive words, about or directed toward historically victimized groups, should be subject to criminal penalties. Should it be illegal to call people names based on their race or religion? Should it be illegal to publish defamatory materials -- such as the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion -- that incite prejudice against a racial or religious group?

Almost every country prohibits hate speech directed at racial, religious, or ethnic groups. The United States, by contrast, has developed a strong tradition of free speech that protects even the most offensive forms of expression. The First Amendment is one of the glories of American society. It is celebrated as the protector of the most precious liberty of all: the right to express oneself and to participate in the democratic process. Free . . .

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