Hate speech

Hate speech includes written, spoken or visual discrimination, harassment, threats or violence against a person or group on the basis of their gender, disability, sexual orientation, race, etc.

Any speech that trivialises, glorifies or incites violence against women is hate speech, just as speech that trivialises the Holocaust is anti-semitic and speech that glorifies attacks on people because of their race is racist.

Online as elsewhere, we all have a right to freedom of expression, and some people hold pretty offensive views about women. Hate speech is not free speech, however, as freedom of expression does not trump freedom from violence. If speech is expressed in a particularly aggressive, inflammatory or sustained manner, then it may be considered hate speech.

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights guarantees the right to freedom of expression, but it also describes a three-part test for restrictions of that right. Any limitations must be:

  1. "provided by law," which means a law must already be in place for any restriction to be upheld
  2. aimed at respect for the rights and reputations of others, the protection of national security or public order, or the protection of public health or morals
  3. necessary to achieve the intended aim and nothing beyond that

In most countries, hate speech is forbidden when it incites violence or prejudicial actions towards others. In some countries, hate speech also covers disparagement or intimidation. It may be possible to seek protection and redress under civil law, criminal law or both.

How people experience hate speech

Regardless of what they are writing about, women bloggers and journalists receive a disproportionate share of hateful comments and threats. Women who write about anything to do with women or tackle seemingly male-dominated subjects, such as gaming or politics, receive an even bigger share.

Women online are consistently attacked not on the merit of their ideas but on their sexuality and physical appearance. They are attacked simply because they are women using their voices. In these situations, the goal of abusers is to intimidate and, ultimately, to silence female commentators.

As Danielle Keats Citron states, "[Anonymous online harassment] discourages women from writing and earning a living online. It interferes with their professional lives. It brands them as incompetent workers and inferior sexual objects."

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