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News Front Page Cafe: When hate-driven speech turns deadly

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UD First Amendment scholar leads forum on hate speech
Dr. Jennifer Lambe, Department of Communications

​Dr. Jennifer Lambe, a First Amendment scholar in the Department of Communications, notes that courts in the United States prefer to fight hate speech by encouraging more, better speech. Other Western democracies tend to levy penalties on hate speech.

By Sophia Small
Journalism Program writer

In the wake of violence fueled by hate speech, members of the UD and Newark communities gathered this month at a Front Page Cafe in search of answers. They agreed on only one:

Easy answers do not exist.

The forum was organized immediately after 11 worshippers were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue on Oct. 27. The shooting was one of three in a 10-day span preceded by anti-Semitic, racist or misogynistic online comments by the attackers.

The attacks followed a grim pattern laid out by an FBI report, released a week after the café: Hate crimes rose for the third year in a row, surging 17 percent, to 7,175, in 2017. The number of hate crimes in Delaware doubled.

"How do we respond to this as a society?" asked Dr. Jennifer Lambe, the speaker at the Deer Park Tavern event and a First Amendment scholar in UD's Department of Communication. "We have freedom of expression, so where does that line come where we can stop something, because we think it's going to be harmful?"

Lambe pointed out that the United States has a unique response to objectionable speech. Most other Western democracies, she said, levy civil or possibly criminal penalties on hate speech. The U.S. legal tradition, however, has been to encourage more speech rather than censorship, except for immediate and specific threats of violence.

Much of the evening's discussion centered on social media outlets, such as Facebook and Twitter.Digital speech is protected by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Because social media sites are privately owned, Lambe said, they are not bound by the First Amendment, which prevents only the government from restricting expression.  However, digital platforms want to encourage as many people as possible to engage with their content. Their business model encourages inflammatory posts because controversial content drives engagement, which increases advertising revenue.

Cellphone screen

"Facebook is operating a business, and they want to continue to have a successful business," she said, adding that "public pressure" explains why Facebook bans hate speech.

So how does Facebook define hate speech?

Audience members discovered there are no easy answers to question, either. Lambe led the group through a New York Times quiz based on a Facebook training document. The quiz asks whether various statements would be considered hate speech based on Facebook's criteria.

When asked whether this statement constituted hate speech – "Female sports reporters need to be hit in the head with hockey pucks" – most of the audience agreed that it was. Facebook, however, says it isn't. Gender is a protected category under Facebook's guidelines, but occupation is not.

At that, one member of the audience spoke out sardonically: "So this was written by software engineers?" 

When asked how she defined hate speech, Lambe offered two measures: context and intent.

As an example of context, Lambe cited posters recently found on the UD campus declaring that "It's Okay to be White." By themselves, the words aren't particularly offensive, she said, but "the context of what's happening in our world make it more problematic."

Lambe mentioned a recent classroom conversation in which the intent for hate speech was lacking. A student asked, "Why don't we ever talk about black-on-black crime?" Lambe said that because of her previous interactions with the student, she knew that the student didn't intend his question to undermine the general problem of racism and police brutality. Instead, she said, he asked out of genuine curiosity.

Neither technical methods, such as artificial intelligence, nor human monitoring will stop all hateful posts, Lambe said. However, she described the efforts of several organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, to advocate for more transparency and new speech policies at social media companies through a campaign called #changetheterms.

The Front Page Café was sponsored by the Journalism Program and the departments of Communication and English. It was partially funded by a grant from the Delaware Humanities, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Journalism Program thanks The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for its generous support and the Pulitzer Prizes for their partnership.

Front Page Cafés are always free and open to the public. If you'd like to be notified of future Journalism programs, send a note to

To learn more

Facebook hate speech quiz, from The New York Times

Change the Terms, a campaign for new  policies on  hate speech on the internet

Transparency Reporting Toolkit: Content Takedown Reporting, a project to improve corporate best practices and transparency.

Section 230: Communications Decency Act, explained

Spring symposium: Where are the limits on speech?
Symposiumm logo

Next year, the University of Delaware will host a two-day event on the Newark campus on "Speech Limits in Public Life: At the Intersection of Free Speech and Hate." 

The symposium, March 14-15, will feature four panels that address the difficulties of responding to hate speech online and on college campuses.

Keynote speakers include: 

Christian Picciolini is a former hate group member and leader, a current anti-hate activist and co-founder of a nonprofit peace advocacy organization "Life After Hate." He is author of "White American Youth: My Descent into America's Most Violent Hate Movement - and How I Got Out."

John A. Powell leads the UC Berkeley Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, holds the Robert D. Haas Chancellor's Chair in Equity and Inclusion amd is a  professor of law, African American studies and ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. He is the author of "Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society."

Nadine Strossen was president of the American Civil Liberties Union from February 1991 to October 2008. She was the first woman and the youngest person to ever lead the ACLU. A professor at New York Law School, Strossen sits on the Council on Foreign Relations.  She is the author of "Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship."

Safiya Umoja Noble is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California. She is the cofounder of the Information Ethics & Equity Institute, which helps organizations ensure their management is transparent and fair.  She is the author of "Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism."

Story published on 11/5/2018 ; last modified on
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Many vile things are said on the internet, where private firms set the rules. When vile speech turns violent, options are tricky. Dr. Jennifer Lambe explains why at a Front Page Cafe.

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Front Page Cafe: When hate-driven speech turns deadly
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