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Civil Rights

Dignity and Defamation: The Visibility of Hate

In his three 2009 Holmes Lectures published here, Professor Waldron seeks to describe and defend laws forbidding group defamation – what we commonly refer to as “hate speech” – as affirming the basic dignity of each member of society. Part I defends the characterization of hate speech as group defamation. It argues that hate speech impugns its victim’s standing as equal members of society. Part II describes hate speech regulation as the protection of a fragile public good: the assurance offered by each member of society to all of its members that they can live free of fear, discrimination, violence, and the like. Part III defends the views articulated in Parts I and II from various criticisms, particularly those of Professor Ronald Dworkin. Dworkin argues that forbidding hate speech may result in a loss of democratic legitimacy for other laws. But Professor Waldron argues that with sufficient safeguards the loss is vanishingly small, and well worth the concomitant gains. As well, prohibitions on hate speech should only extend to issues that are “settled,” such as race, rather than issues that are currently controversial, which should further allay concerns that hate speech regulation will foreclose freedom or democratic debate.