Hate speech and 'first amendment absolutism' discourses in the US

John D.H. Downing*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

20 Scopus citations


This article argues that the First Amendment to the US Constitution, seen inside and outside the USA as a historical high water-mark of discursive freedom, has suffered from an ideological refusal to acknowledge its dangerous implications for the growth of hate speech, whether against people of color or other subordinated groups. This refusal has led in turn to a virtual vacuum in intelligently conceived strategies to combat hate speech. First, issues in the 'absolutist' position are reviewed, and then four problems are discussed in greater depth: the actual remit of the First Amendment in practice; its international reference points; whether 'race' is the only vector at stake; and the deficiency of purely legal conceptualizations of the issue. The article continues with a brief note on critical legal theory and critical 'race' theory, and concludes by considering two different angles of vision on the subject, one that of appropriate, sociologically informed administrative responses to hate speech within an institution, the other Charles Husband's statement of the need to plan for the 'right to be understood' within a multi-ethnic public sphere.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)175-189
Number of pages15
JournalDiscourse and Society
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1999


  • Antisemitism
  • Critical legal theory
  • First amendment
  • Hate speech
  • Public sphere
  • Racism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Linguistics and Language

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