I’ve often defended hate speech laws, especially when they are designed in such a way that they can curb speech that risks violating the rights of people who are targeted by hate speech. (For instance, cross burning can restrict people’s freedom of residence and movement). However, I also admit that many hate speech laws go way too far and punish speech that, as vile as it may be, doesn’t harm anyone’s rights. Here’s a recent example:
A woman who was filmed allegedly shouting racial abuse at fellow passengers on a tram in south London will spend Christmas in prison after she was remanded in custody during a court appearance. She has been charged with a racially aggravated public order offence.
Emma West, 34, from New Addington, south London, cried as magistrates watched a video of the incident, which has been viewed more than 11m times since it appeared online on 27 November. She was arrested after the footage was posted on YouTube. (source)
The video footage, which sparked a Twitter trend with the hashtag #MyTramExperience on Monday, shows a woman complaining about ethnic minorities living in Britain. She starts by saying: “What has this country come to? … with loads of black people and a load of fucking Polish. You ain’t English either. None of you are fucking English. Get back to your own fucking, d’you know what?
“Sort out your own countries. Don’t come and do mine. Britain is nothing now. Britain is fuck all.”
One of the passengers on the tram asks her to mind her language, saying: “There are little kids on the tram.” The woman points to the child on her lap and says “I’ve got a little kid here.” (source)
The woman is obviously vile and disturbed, but as I understand it from the reporting, her speech doesn’t harm anyone. It’s not like in John Stuart Mill’s example of the mob in front of the corn dealer’s home, being told that corn dealers are starvers of the poor. Hence no reason to prosecute her, let alone put her in prison.