What is hate speech, and is it protected by the First Amendment?

Hate speech may be offensive and hurtful; however, it is generally protected by the First Amendment. One common definition of hate speech is “any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons on the basis of race, religion, skin color, sexual identity, gender identity, ethnicity, disability or national origin.” Courts have ruled that restrictions on hate speech would conflict with the First Amendment’s protection of the freedom of expression. Since public universities are bound by the First Amendment, public universities must adhere to these rulings. However, universities also have an obligation to create a safe, inclusive learning environment for all members of the campus community.

With these considerations in mind, courts in the United States have found that expression generally cannot be punished based on its content or viewpoint. Thus, although hate speech, alone, receives constitutional protection, any expression that constitutes a true threat, incitement to imminent lawless action, discriminatory harassment or defamation can be punished by UWM for those reasons.