Hate Speech is in the Eye of the Beholder

Authored By 
Gina Roussos
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
April 10, 2017


America has a double-standard when it comes to freedom of speech protections that is difficult to ignore. For example, when UC Berkeley cancelled a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos, conservative news channels expressed outrage at what they perceived to be an attack on Yiannopoulos’ free speech rights. But there was no outcry when two White House staffers were abruptly fired after making negative comments about Mr. Trump. Why the difference? People are more so interested in protecting acts they like than in upholding the First Amendment . And it’s not just the conservative pundits doing this.  In a recent study, I found that we all have the potential to perceive acts we disagree with as more deserving of punishment, even those of us that consider ourselves to be unbiased.

The study examined perceptions of racially charged speech. Because I predicted that racial attitudes might play a role in free speech perceptions, participants first completed a scale measuring bias against Black people. Next, they read one of two descriptions of what could objectively be considered a hate crime. In the vignette, a man goes into a public park at night and hangs a papier-mâché effigy next to a sign that says “Get out of here [racial expletive].” For half of the participants, a man named Wyatt hung the sign and he addressed his sign to “n**gers”. For the other half, the man was named Malik and his sign was addressed to “white trash”. Wyatt/Malik is arrested and is set to go on trial. It’s important to note that even if his actions are not considered to be hate speech, he can be charged with other crimes, such as trespassing and harassment.

Then participants indicated whether or not Wyatt/Malik’s actions were protected by the First Amendment and if punishing him for his actions would violate his free speech rights. Lastly, participants were asked whether or not Wyatt/Malik’s actions warranted a hate crime designation. This distinction is significant because labeling a crime as a hate crime allows a judge to deliver a harsher sentence.

Participants’ racial attitudes interacted with content of speech to predict perceptions of freedom of speech protections. People with more negative attitudes toward Black people were more likely to say that the anti-Black hate speech was protected under the First Amendment, whereas those with more positive attitudes toward Black people said anti-White speech was protected by freedom of speech rights. In both cases, the extent to which participants defended the hate speech as being protected by free speech rights predicted their willingness to label the act as a hate crime.

Just like on Fox News, when the hate speech was directed at a group participants did not care about, they perceived the First Amendment as protecting the speech and they did not see the crime as severe enough to warrant a hate crime designation. The opposite was true when participants were interested in protecting the racial group being threatened.

To better understand how racial attitudes influenced perceptions of hate speech, further analyses examined the responses of low racial bias participants and high racial bias participants separately. Individuals with generally negative attitudes toward Black people rated the anti-White hate speech as more severe and less deserving of free speech protections compared to when they rated the anti-Black hate speech. This was consistent with past work showing that racist people tend to be biased against Black people. More surprising was the pattern of results for individuals with generally positive attitudes toward Black people, those that our society would describe as lacking in racial bias. It turns out that liking Black people is not the same as being unbiased, it just means the bias is in the different direction.

Participants with positive attitudes toward Black people rated the anti-White hate speech as less severe and more deserving of free speech protections compared to when they rated the anti-Black speech. Objectively speaking, both vignettes depict hate speech so both crimes could be considered hate crimes. And yet, the participants lacking in bias against Black people exhibited instead a bias against White people.

These results are unprecedented. One potential explanation is that people with positive attitudes toward Black people may hold negative attitudes toward White people in general and/or White people who commit hate crimes. Alternatively, people who have developed positive attitudes toward Black people may perceive anti-Black hate speech as more harmful as it evokes and perpetuates a long history of discrimination against Black people. The next study in this line of work will measure those attitudes and beliefs to see if they can explain these unexpected results.

We all hold negative and positive attitudes toward various groups; no one is without bias.  We will continue to make various legal, philosophical, and moral arguments about how X is protected by the First Amendment but Y is not, but the truth is that we will never find consensus on this matter as long as humans form opinions about other humans. Our biases, whether we are aware of them or not, color our beliefs and attitudes in every moment.

Gina Roussos is an ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow and is pursuing a PhD in Social Psychology at Yale. She is broadly interested in how prejudiced attitudes and beliefs originate, are perpetuated, and can ultimately be changed.