Slurs and Freedom of Speech

Journal of Applied Philosophy 40 (5):836-848 (2022)
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A very common argument against restrictions on hate speech says that since such restrictions curtail freedom of speech, they cause more harm than they prevent. A no less common reply has it that the harms caused by hate speech are sufficiently great to justify legal restrictions on free speech. In ‘Freedom of Expression and Derogatory Words’, West questions a common assumption of both arguments concerning the use of slurs, i.e. that restricting the use of slurs necessarily curtails freedom of speech. According to West, everything that can be said with a slur can be said with its neutral counterpart. Given the psychological and social harms of slurs, this would give us a compelling reason to put legal restrictions on their use. However, in this article, I will argue that, according to the main theories of slurs, slurs can be used to express derogatory information which cannot be expressed by their neutral counterparts. This will leave us with two options when it comes to avoiding the negative effects of slurs: (i) to restrict freedom of speech or (ii) to argue that the derogatory information expressed by slurs is not covered by free speech. Both options will depart significantly from West's argument.



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Stefan Rinner
University of Hamburg

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Censorship Bubbles Vs Hate Bubbles.Wendy Xin - forthcoming - Social Epistemology.

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