Hate Speech Laws: Ratifying the Assassin's Veto

24 Pages Posted: 5 Sep 2016  

Robert Corn-Revere

Davis Wright Tremaine

Date Written: May 24, 2016


Recently criticisms of religion have been met by violence and threats of violence, the most infamous being the murder in Paris of several editors of the satirical weekly, Charlie Hebdo. The phenomenon of killing or threatening to kill those who insult you or your way of life has come to be known as the assassin’s veto. These events raise anew a basic question for liberal societies: how much expression must a free society tolerate?

The United States Supreme Court has generally restricted government limits on speech. Some speech, however, does not receive protection, including expressions closely tied to violence. In the past, “fighting words” were judged unprotected by the First Amendment; the development of Court doctrine has largely eliminated this exception. American jurisprudence is based on the assumption that protections for freedom of expression will not long endure if they can be abandoned when the message is particularly repellent or its target especially sympathetic.

European law also protects freedom of expression, although in a less robust way than does U.S. law. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights subjects freedom of speech to important limitations understood generally as “hate speech.” In contrast to the United States, officials may apply criminal or civil sanctions to prohibited political advocacy.

The United States faces a choice. Should it defend the right to offend, or opt instead to champion a right not to be offended? We have learned from hard experience in the United States that free expression cannot long survive without protecting outrageous and offensive speech.

Keywords: Free Speech, Assassin's Veto, Heckler's Veto, Charlie Hedbo, Freedom of Expression

Suggested Citation

Corn-Revere, Robert, Hate Speech Laws: Ratifying the Assassin's Veto (May 24, 2016). Cato Institute Policy Analysis No. 791. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2833900

Robert Corn-Revere (Contact Author)

Davis Wright Tremaine ( email )

Suite 2300
1300 SW Fifth Ave.
Portland, OR 97201
United States

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