Free Speech and Hate Speech

March 11, 2011, 7:17 PM UTC

Americans don't like the anti-gay protests like those made by Westboro Baptist Church at the funerals of members of the U.S. military killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and would oppose the right to stage such protests. But in the latest Economist/YouGov Poll they are not sure that there should be laws to forbid public hate speech based on race, religion, gender, ethnic origin or sexual orientation. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled 8 to 1 that the protests are protected by the First Amendment and the right of freedom of speech. Americans oppose that right for the Westboro Church members, who say at military funerals and elsewhere that God is punishing the United States because of its tolerance of homosexuality.

Even those groups with negative opinion about homosexuality oppose those protests. There is almost little difference between Republicans (who opposed same-sex marriage in last week's poll) and Democrats (who favored it). In no demographic group do more than a third support the right to protest as the Westboro Baptist Church does. 30% of men and 32% of college graduates support the right to protest, the highest level of support in this poll. Many Americans oppose giving the right of free speech to groups they find offensive: 38% say they favor a law to make hate speech illegal (it is currently illegal in many European countries). But nearly as many oppose such a law.

Democrats favor such a law 49% to 27%; Republicans oppose it 40% to 31%. And when asked whether Americans have too much or too little freedom to speak freely, 52% of the public says they have just about the right amount of such freedom. Fewer than one in five say they have either too much or too little freedom.