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    Module 6: Hate Speech

    Despite the importance of freedom of expression, not all speech is protected under international law, and some limited forms of speech are required to be prohibited by states.  Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) provides that:

    “(1)        Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law.

    (2)          Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.”

    In addition, article 4(a) of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination requires that the dissemination of ideas based on racial superiority or hatred, incitement to racial discrimination, as well as all acts of violence or incitement to such acts against any race or group of persons of another colour or ethnic origin, shall be declared an offence that is punishable by law.

    Hate speech provisions under international law distinguish between three categories of speech: that which should be restricted, that which may be restricted; and that which is lawful and subject to protection, according to the severity of the speech in question.  Hate speech regulations vary significantly by jurisdiction, particularly in how they define what constitutes hate speech.

    There is a need for clear and narrowly circumscribed definitions of what is meant by the term “hate speech”, or objective criteria that can be applied.  Over-regulation of hate speech can violate the right to freedom of expression, while under-regulation may lead to intimidation, harassment or violence against minorities and protected groups.

    Importantly, hate speech should not be conflated with offensive speech, as the right to freedom of expression includes speech that is robust, critical, or that causes shock or offence(1) Hate speech is perhaps the topic that creates the most disagreement among defenders of freedom of expression, as defining the line between offensive but protected speech and hate speech can be extremely difficult.

    As a general principle, no one should be penalised for statements that are true.  Furthermore, the right of journalists to communicate information and ideas to the public should be respected, including when they are reporting on racism and intolerance, and prior censorship should be applied, if at all, only in the most limited circumstances.  Finally, any sanctions for hate speech should be in strict conformity with the principle of proportionality.

    There are some distinctions between hate speech online and offline that may require consideration,(2) although laws generally do not distinguish between the two:

    • Content is more easily posted online without due consideration or thought.  Online hate speech cases need to distinguish between poorly considered statements posted hastily online, and an actual threat that is part of an intentional campaign of hatred.
    • Once something is online, it can be difficult (or impossible) to get it off entirely.  Hate speech posted online can persist in different formats across multiple different platforms, which can make it difficult to address.
    • Online content is frequently posted anonymously, which presents an additional challenge to dealing with hate speech online.
    • The internet has transnational reach, which raises cross-jurisdictional complications in terms of legal mechanisms for combatting hate speech and even definitions of it.


    1. Media Defence, ‘Training manual on digital rights and freedom of expression online, at p 57 (2020) (accessible at: Back
    2. Media Defence, ‘Training manual on digital rights and freedom of expression online, at p 57 (2020) (accessible at: Back