“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
That line was written in 1906 by Evelyn Beatrice Hall to describe Voltaire’s attitude towards a fellow rival French philosopher. For the next hundred years that line was often quoted to express a particularly American ideal of toleration and the importance of free speech.
But something changed over the past few decades. Certain offensive speech has been deemed not only utterly indefensible, but excludable from First Amendment protections. A prime example was found on Twitter a few days ago when Chris Cuomo, a CNN anchor, law school graduate, and son of the New York governor, wrote that “hate speech is excluded from protection.”
That claim, of course, is nonsense. As legal scholar Eugene Volokh says, “Hateful ideas (whatever exactly that might mean) are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas. One is as free to condemn Islam — or Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, or whites, or illegal aliens, or native-born citizens — as one is to condemn capitalism or Socialism or Democrats or Republicans.”
There are forms of unprotected speech, Volokh notes, but it has nothing to do with “hate speech”:
The same is true of the other narrow exceptions, such as for true threats of illegal conduct or incitement intended to and likely to produce imminent illegal conduct (i.e., illegal conduct in the next few hours or maybe days, as opposed to some illegal conduct some time in the future). Indeed, threatening to kill someone because he’s black (or white), or intentionally inciting someone to a likely and immediate attack on someone because he’s Muslim (or Christian or Jewish), can be made a crime. But this isn’t because it’s “hate speech”; it’s because it’s illegal to make true threats and incite imminent crimes against anyone and for any reason, for instance because they are police officers or capitalists or just someone who is sleeping with the speaker’s ex-girlfriend.