Free speech versus hate speech

Free speech is a democratic right to verbalise an opinion without fear of reprimand or punishment.

Hate speech, by definition, is verbal or written prejudice against a group often based on race, religion or sexuality.

While the public is protected against hate speech with offences punishable through the court system, a fine line can exist to avoid infringing someone’s right to freedom of speech.

When the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted, Australia, the UK and the US opposed the introduction of provisions against hate speech. The countries representatives believed that free speech should only be limited if it was necessary to prevent violence.

In the 1960s, changes were made to the declaration with the introduction of The International Covenant on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD). As the opposition against apartheid in South Africa intensified, the most significant change was the restriction of producing material that supported discrimination, hatred and racism.

Australia is a signatory on the covenant but has included reservations having already criminalised incitement to violence in public order acts and believing existing laws were sufficient to address hate speech.

However, Australia began introducing more anti-discriminatory laws during the 1970s. Today, most Australian jurisdictions have laws in place preventing insulting, harassing, inciting and vilifying language. Do restrictions on hate speech compromise a person’s right to freedom of speech?