We asked RHUL students about free speech and hate speech

‘If it were a Venn diagram, hate speech would be a circle within free speech’


In the current political climate opinions on Brexit, Donald Trump, Katie Hopkins, climate change and the removing of the female symbol from sanitary products – to name a few- encourage various conversations and debates. These seem to be a regularly featuring across all social media platforms.

The conversation about free speech and hate speech, platforming vs. no-platforming has seemed to take RHUL by storm following the recent cancellation of Katie Hopkins attending the university.

At the Royal Holloway Tab we reached out to students and asked them both their defintions of and how they felt about free speech and hate speech, we asked them about consequences of free speech and hate speech, how they felt about expressing their opinions in today's society, and discussed the notion of promoting people to speak their mind no matter their views.

Michael, Law, Third Year

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Free speech is the freedom to express one’s own opinions, perspectives in whatever means or form, without any official repercussions other than the reception of other opinions and possible controversy…

I consider hate speech to be abusive, offensive and harmful speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group – often based on race, religion, sexual orientation and many other attributes.

I believe people should be allowed to speak freely and express themselves no matter what their view is. But this right cannot be allowed to justify harmful, offensive and hateful speech and behaviour. It’s a difficult line to draw, but there sometimes has to be a limit to what people should be allowed to say. A clear example is the issue of hate speech.

Shahmir, Psychology, Third Year

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Every time we exercise our right to speak up and stand for something, we create a dialogue allowing us to assess the positives and negatives about the situation.

I would not like to be sat with a coffee with an individual who had a dislike for Muslims, but they were keeping it to themselves. But I would love to sit down with an individual who had this view, it was known by me and others so that we could engage in a conversation. Educating an individual is more powerful than ridiculing their views because for all we know it is not their fault.

Social learning occurs every second so the views they hold are likely to be held by others not because they are not educated but because they are bound by their experiences… Exposure is a necessity. Speaking freely without consequence is dangerous.

Speaking freely that is fuelled with hatred and oppression is not something needed within our progressive society so those who do need to face the consequences.

Thea, English and Creative Writing, Second Year

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I think there is a difference [between free speech and hate speech]. Free speech allows an individual to voice their opinion, however when this opinion begins to attack others and say things that would cause harm or hurt then it turns into hate speech.

I for one do feel comfortable speaking about controversial matters, I think it’s important to address taboo subjects, and its positive to give your opinion and also to hear others’ opinions who may differ from your own. Even when your views don’t follow the norm, I think it’s still acceptable to voice them, given you don’t attack or confront others in a vicious or malicious way.

There are always going to be consequences when you give your opinion because we’re all only human and therefore there are going to be repercussions if you preach things that others strongly disagree with.

Thomas, Ancient and Medieval History, Third Year

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For a political system that, in practice, places sovereignty in the people, free speech is the mechanism by which governments are held to account and are thus improved.

To not have free speech is to remove the ability to think in a way that honest to our instinctual beliefs and biases.

As someone who sees the idea of the individual as being at the foundation of British values, I believe that we all have agency. Therefore, there is no inherent link between one person’s speech and another’s actions. However, if someone tells people to start a genocide against that group, then this has crossed a line in discourse because one person’s right to free speech is being used to against another’s right to life.

This means that there is a difference, and hate speech is where one uses their speech to explicitly and provably deny people the rights that are of greater than the right to free speech: life and property.

Amber, PIR and Psychology, First Year

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Hate speech is a term that I find inadequate, because it classifies speech as only speech. It refers little to the content of the speech, or its goals. I would classify hate speech to be any speech that has the goal of shifting cultural norms of acceptability based around violence against minorities and vulnerable groups. Hate speech needs only be considered permissible to have itself a victory.

Consequences for hate speech must be enacted locally, with self-organised groups that have taken care to educate themselves and put in tangible effort.

To allow the state to take action against those who wish to strengthen and empower the state to exercise and extend its power over minorities and vulnerable groups is unproductive and unrealistic.

Jack, PIR and Philosophy, First Year

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[Free speech] is an important part of a democratic society because it enables people to hear a number of different of viewpoints, helping to inform decision-making.

But as with all rights, it comes with responsibilities. While, in theory, we are free to say anything we like, this doesn’t mean that we should. We have obligation not to use our right to free speech to invoke violence or hatred. When we do abuse this right, free speech becomes hate speech.

I don’t think we should encourage people to speak their mind whatever their views. This is because some views are inherently wrong and even dangerous, for example, ideas about racial superiority or myths about vaccinations. When people do voice such dangerous opinions, there should certainly be consequences, because their words can inspire negative actions.

Lily, Mathematics with French, Second Year

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Freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequence, and this is where many people seem to feel that they have “lost” their right to free speech. This is not the case, it may be that you are being called out if what you said was perceived as wrong, controversial or problematic.

Attacking people based on their ethnicity, their country of birth, their sex, their sexual orientation, etc. is not “free speech”; it is bullying, and should be treated as such… Typically, those who express hate speech also have the intention of censoring certain groups from expressing themselves, which defeats the whole purpose of free speech and therefore shouldn’t be associated with it.

It is important to listen to each other and try to understand what was meant by what they said and teach each other different ways to communicate our ideas.

George, Law, Second Year

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If you agree that all speech is free speech (unless impeded by some sort of restriction or censorship), then logically it follows that hate speech is free speech. Does this make hate speech acceptable, or the pursuit of unrestricted free speech desirable? Certainly not, but the difference merely doesn’t exist. Within all forms of expression, those covered as free speech are either, by their nature, hate speech or not hate speech. If it were a Venn diagram, hate speech would be a circle within free speech.

In comedy, people make jokes that play with very sensitive subjects. Jimmy Carr is a fantastic example of this, making jokes about homosexuality, about the Holocaust, about racism. Jokes that, if not funny, would be utterly unacceptable in modern discourse. But why are they acceptable for him to say? Because it is comedy, and because of the context.

If you hold Carr’s jokes up to his character, and his convictions, you would struggle to justify that he genuinely believes what he’s joking about. When he jokes that homosexuality is a choice – a view we would condemn from a politician – we laugh, because we understand why it subverts our expectations and that Jimmy Carr doesn’t genuinely believe this. I worry that’s the issue with stifling people’s rights to say what they want; that views people don’t hold, or intend to joke about, will be lost. Devil’s advocate is planner’s scrutiny.

Dominique, Biology, Third Year

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Free speech to me is the ability to think, speak and practice your beliefs without imposing or harming another. You've got to be able to say it, and then do it, without hurting another person. If you cannot act on what you say without being an asshole, it's not free speech.

Just because you have something to say doesn't mean you should say it. Politics is so aggressive that its a far cry from any sort of normal conversation, and this extreme environment has become normalised, because it's all we see and hear about.

It's okay to say 'well I don't know enough about this to have a proper chat' and it's okay to listen to what someone is saying and not agree, or go away and google what they said to make sure it's factual.

Talha, Physics by Research, Masters

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I think there's a massive difference [between hate and free speech]. Free speech is the ABILITY to say what you wish. Hate speech is the ACT of speaking harmfully towards a group or groups of people. The definitions are completely different.

I don't think people should speak their minds in real life without restraint. Most people aren't willing to change their minds in things they really care about as they usually reflect their deeper morals. I don't think that's necessarily a bad thing, it just shows that people are passionate.

People can THINK what they want as long as they don't act on it if it's harmful. But speaking about controversial topics CAN be harmful, e.g. the hate against gay people causing mental health issues, being forced into the closet, suicides, etc. People's lives obviously matter more than fuckin Brenda saying she doesn't like boy on boy action.