A poll released Wednesday by the online pollster YouGov has found that a plurality of the American public, as well as a majority of Democrats, support limiting the First Amendment to allow a ban on hate speech.
The poll, conducted from May 8-11, asked respondents whether they would support a law criminalizing “public comments intended to stir up hatred against a group based on such things as their race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.” Overall, 41 percent of Americans supported such a laws, while only 38 percent were opposed (22 percent were unsure).
Among those supporting a ban on hate speech were 51 percent of Democrats, as well as 37 percent of Republicans. The higher figure for Democrats was driven in large part by the attitudes of black and Hispanic respondents. Sixty-two percent of blacks favored a ban on hate speech, as did 50 percent of Hispanics. In contrast, only 36 percent of whites wanted a ban.
YouGov found other significant demographic divides among respondents. Those age 69 or older were the most supportive of a hate speech ban, but they were followed by those aged 18-29, while those of intermediate age were more protective of free speech. Women and those earning under $40,000 a year were also more willing to ban hate speech.
A ban on hate speech, if it passes, would utterly violate the First Amendment as it is currently interpreted by U.S. courts. The Supreme Court has, among other things, upheld the legality of cross-burning and affirmed the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to picket funerals and other events with hateful signs. Even hate speech calling for violence is protected in U.S. law, as long as the advocacy is general rather than promoting immediate and specific action.
However, the U.S. is relatively exceptional even among democracies in its near-total lack of restrictions on offensive speech. YouGov’s write-up of the poll noted that in the United Kingdom, columnist Katie Hopkins has faced a police investigation for a column she wrote referring to African migrants to Europe as “cockroaches.” Comments of that nature may run afoul of British law prohibiting the incitement of “racial hatred.”
The poll also asked people for their views on other hate-related legislation. Overall, 56 percent of respondents endorsed the federal hate crime law requiring increased penalties for crimes motivated by hatred against a particular race, ethnic group, religion, or gender, and 51 percent favored a 2009 expansion of that law that added sexual orientation and gender identity as protected categories.
The poll was conducted with 1000 respondents and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.