What is hate speech? The case for a corpus approach

Criminal Law and Philosophy 18 (2):397-430 (2024)
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Contemporary public discourse is saturated with speech that vilifies and incites hatred or violence against vulnerable groups. The term “hate speech” has emerged in legal circles and in ordinary language to refer to these communicative acts. But legal theorists and philosophers disagree over how to define this term. This paper makes the case for, and subsequently develops, the first corpus-based analysis of the ordinary meaning of “hate speech.” We begin by demonstrating that key interpretive and moral disputes surrounding hate speech laws—in particular, surrounding their compatibility with the rule of law, democracy, and free speech—depend crucially on the ordinary meaning of “hate speech.” Next, we argue, drawing on recent developments in legal philosophy, that corpus linguistics constitutes a distinctively promising tool for ascertaining the ordinary meaning of “hate speech.” Finally, we offer a proof of concept, by outlining, and analyzing the interpretive and moral implications of, the first such study.

Author Profiles

Nat Hansen
University of Reading
Maxime C. Lepoutre
University of Reading
Sara Vilar-Lluch
University of East Anglia (PhD)
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