Is Hate Speech Violent By Nature?

By Samantha Grant

The idea of hate speech being protected by the First Amendment, and the extent to which it may or may not be protected, has always been an ongoing topic of discussion.

The Supreme Court has often been faced with cases involving hate speech and fighting words, yet has consistently ruled that unless the words provoke imminent violence, or are threats of serious harm or danger, that speech is Constitutionally protected.

In the Sunday review section of the New York Times, Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett, a psychology professor at Northeastern University, wrote a piece called “When is Speech Violence?” 

Taking a scientific approach to understanding how hate speech affects the human brain, Barrett explains how physical violence is obviously more damaging than verbal statements are.  However, words can have a strong effect on your nervous system.

“If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence.”

Barrett goes on to explain how stress is caused by the environment you are in and the people who surround you.  If some of those people are provocative and/or hateful with their speech, their words could pose a danger to your health both mentally and eventually, physically.

“We must also halt speech that bullies and torments. From the perspective of our brain cells, the latter is literally a form of violence.”

The counter-argument to this article is that the First Amendment’s purpose is to protect speech we find offensive or disagree with, not to simply put chains on free speech because certain words can cause potentially harmful stress to the human brain.





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