Defining Hate Speech

33 Pages Posted: 10 Dec 2016 Last revised: 10 Jan 2017

See all articles by Andrew Sellars

Andrew Sellars

Boston University School of Law; Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society

Date Written: December 1, 2016


There is no shortage of opinions about what should be done about hate speech, but if there is one point of agreement, it is that the topic is ripe for rigorous study. But just what is hate speech, and how will we know it when we see it online? For all of the extensive literature about the causes, harms, and responses to hate speech, few scholars have endeavored to systematically define the term. Where other areas of content analysis have developed rich methodologies to account for influences like context or bias, the present scholarship around hate speech rarely extends beyond identification of particular words or phrases that are likely to cause harm targeted toward immutable characteristics.

This essay seeks to review some of the various attempts to define hate speech, and pull from them a series of traits that can be used to frame hate speech with a higher degree of confidence. In so doing, it explores the tensions between hate speech and principles of freedom of expression, both in the abstract and as they are captured in existing definitions. It also analyzes historical attempts to define the term in the United States, from the brief period of time when the United States punished hate speech directly. From this analysis, eight traits are surfaced that can be used for the development of a confidence scoring system to help ascertain whether a particular expression should be considered one of hate speech or not.

Suggested Citation

Sellars, Andrew, Defining Hate Speech (December 1, 2016). Berkman Klein Center Research Publication No. 2016-20, Boston Univ. School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 16-48, Available at SSRN: or

Andrew Sellars (Contact Author)

Boston University School of Law ( email )

765 Commonwealth Avenue
Boston, MA 02215
United States

Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States

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