Free Speech or Hate Crime? Studying the Role of Biases

How racial attitudes and free speech beliefs affect perceptions of hate crimes.

Posted Sep 27, 2018

The right to free speech is a highly valued principle codified into the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, yet Americans have historically held a double standard when it comes to whose speech is viewed as worthy of protections.

Hateful speech directed at stigmatized groups (e.g., Black Americans) and lower-status individuals seems to strikingly contrast with speech directed at non-stigmatized groups (e.g., White Americans) and high-power individuals—the former being justified by some as protected by free speech rights and, thus, from punishment.

In their 2017 paper, Mark White and Chris Crandall offer initial empirical support for the claim that views on free speech protections can be motivated by racial bias. They found that higher levels of anti-Black prejudice predicted viewing punishment of derogatory speech targeting Blacks, but not other groups, as violating the speaker’s free speech rights.

In important work that extends these findings published in January 2018 in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Gina Roussos and Jack Dovidio (both at Yale University) investigated whether people view prejudice-motivated criminal acts as protected by the right to free speech. They also examined the potential legal implications of these perceptions, by measuring individuals’ willingness to support hate crime charges for such acts. Legal designation of a crime as a hate crime is important because it enhances the sentence for the perpetrator if convicted in recognition of the additional harm caused by crimes motivated by prejudice, and by crimes targeting members of stigmatized groups in particular.

Roussos and Dovidio hypothesized that because hate crime charges require evidence of a prejudice motivation, and because justification of a behavior (e.g., as protected by free speech rights) might reduce perception that it is motivated by prejudice, perceiving a criminal act as more protected by free speech rights would be associated with less support for hate crime charges for the act. Further, individuals varying in levels of anti-Black prejudice would view prejudice-motivated crimes targeting Blacks versus Whites diversely in terms of whether the act was protected by free speech rights.

In two online studies, participants completed a measure of anti-Black prejudice and then read about a criminal act involving hate speech. There were two conditions that involved reading a vignette: (a) Black target, in which a White man uses a racial expletive targeting Black people; or (b) White target, in which a Black man uses a racial expletive targeting White people. After reading the vignette, participants responded to items measuring the extent to which they perceived the act as protected by the First Amendment right to free speech and indicated the extent to which they would support charging the perpetrator of the act with a hate crime.

When the act targeted Blacks, participants higher in anti-Black prejudice perceived the act as more protected by free speech rights and were less supportive of hate crime charges. There were no consistent effects of anti-Black prejudice in the White target condition. Participants lower in prejudice rated the Black-targeted act as less protected by free speech rights and more deserving of hate crime charges compared to the White-targeted act, and participants higher in prejudice did not see a difference between the two acts for either measure. Moreover, supporting the authors’ hypothesis, viewing the act as less protected by free speech rights predicted judging the act as more deserving of hate crime charges.

Creative Commons
Source: Creative Commons

These results have implications for how prejudice-motivated crimes are treated by the legal system. They suggest that whether a prejudice-motivated crime receives hate crime charges will likely hinge on a number of factors including: the content of the act, jury members’ levels of anti-Black prejudice, and perceptions of the crime as protected by free speech rights.

Creative Commons
Source: Creative Commons

Most broadly, despite claims that race and racial bias are unrelated to free speech debate, the findings of Roussos and Dovidio contribute to the empirical work demonstrating that perceptions of hateful speech as protected from punishment by the First Amendment right to free speech are indeed influenced by the group targeted in a particular speech incident and by the individuals’ levels of prejudice toward that group. Many important questions remain.

To avoid reinforcing double standards in learning and application related to speech rights, free speech advocates must acknowledge and take steps to address the ways that group-based biases can alter our perceptions of the right to free speech.

Thank you to Dr. Gina Roussos for assistance in the preparation of this post. Please follow up with gina.roussos@utoronto.ca with further questions. Roussos now joins University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy as a postdoctoral researcher in the Applied Moral Psychology Lab. 

Dr. Gina Roussos
Source: Dr. Gina Roussos

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