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This Week in Hate Speech

A round-up of news and research on hateful speech, and efforts to silence it.
The ad features a photograph of a 1941 meeting between Adolf Hitler and Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian Arab nationalist who made radio broadcasts supporting the Nazis. (Photo: American Freedom Defense Initiative)

The ad features a photograph of a 1941 meeting between Adolf Hitler and Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian Arab nationalist who made radio broadcasts supporting the Nazis. (Photo: American Freedom Defense Initiative)

Few things in America have such universal support as the right to free speech. But many would argue that not all speech is equally worth protecting, and when free speech becomes hate speech, it can be (some might argue objectively) harmful. Here's a round-up of this week's haters, and the admirable efforts to silence their bigotry:


In the coming weeks, anti-Muslim ads will begin appearing on the sides of Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority buses. The American Freedom Defense Initiative, a New Hampshire-based Islamophobic non-profit dedicated to fighting for the freedom to hate on other cultures, made SEPTA an offer they couldn’t refuse—legally. A federal court ruled that since SEPTA has previously accepted political and controversial ads, they had to accept the non-profit's $30,000 contract to run ads featuring a meeting between Hitler and Hajj Amin al-Husseini, a Palestinian Arab nationalist and Nazi supporter. The ad boldly proclaims: “Jew Hatred: It’s in the Quran.”

SEPTA officials decided not to appeal the decision, and pour more money into a legal battle they’ll probably ultimately lose. The Washington Post reported that Washington, D.C.’s transit agency lost a legal battle with the same group in 2012; Metro was forced to display anti-Muslim posters in several stations back then and last year they ran the same Hitler ad on buses that the non-profit is using in Philadelphia.

SEPTA did alter its advertising rules to “prohibit political, public-issue, and noncommercial ads,” reports. But for now, the agency is gearing up for the all but inevitable backlash once the ads hit the road. When the controversial ad ran on San Francisco’s Muni buses earlier this year, they were quickly defaced with messages against hate speech.

While so far courts have upheld the American Freedom Defense Initiative's constitutional right to free speech, that doesn't mean the ads aren't potentially harmful. Research shows that offensive or racially charged symbols can provoke discriminatory sentiments, even in people who believe they are free of prejudice. Tom Jacobs reported for Pacific Standard last week on a study that showed that images of the Confederate flag elicited racial biases in white Americans. It's not hard to imagine these SEPTA advertisements having the same effect.


In California, pretty much anyone with $200 and the motivation to submit proposals to the state attorney general’s office can file legislative initiatives. As the Los Angeles Times reports, sometimes these citizens’ initiatives stick, like the 1996 initiative that legalized marijuana for medicinal use. Sometimes they are laughably pointless, like initiatives to allow public school children to be able to sing Christmas carols. And sometimes they’re just straight up horrifying, like the proposed “Sodomite Suppression Act.”

Last month, Huntington Beach lawyer Matthew McLaughlin submitted a proposal that would basically execute residents for their sexual orientation. In his words:

Seeing that it is better that offenders should die rather than that all of us should be killed by God's just wrath against us for the folly of tolerating-wickedness in our midst, the People of California wisely command, in the fear of God, that any person who willingly touches another person of the same gender for purposes of sexual gratification be put to death by bullets to the head or by any other convenient method.

As the Economist reported in 2011, direct democracy systems that give citizens more opportunities to participate in legislative processes have been growing in popularity for decades—and basically wreaking havoc in California. But the chances that this initiative would gather the necessary 365,000 signatures in 180 days it needs to advance are pretty much non-existent.

Still, California Attorney General Kamila Harris doesn’t want to waste state resources giving the ballot a formal name, evaluating its viability and potential economic impacts, and kicking off the signature-gathering phase of the process. Harris announced this week that she plans to seek a court order to get out of giving this particular measure a title and summary, mostly on the grounds that it’s just too heinous—also, the death penalty was ruled unconstitutional in California in 2014.


Twitter is quietly implementing a new feature to filter out tweets that contain threats, offensive materials, or are sent from suspicious accounts, Business Insider reports. How the feature works and when (or if) it will be available to all users is still unknown, but it’s heartening news for users of the platform, which has been plagued by harassment issues for some time.

The Internet can be a harsh place to hang out. The Pew Research Center found that 40 percent of Internet users have experienced online harassment, and young women are more likely to experience the most severe forms, such as stalking and sexual harassment. If you followed GamerGate, you know that Twitter is often where much of that harassment and threatening takes place.

"We suck at dealing with abuse and trolls on the platform and we've sucked at it for years," Twitter CEO Dick Costolo wrote in a memo, according to the Verge. But it seems the company is finally making changes to protect its users from the worst side of the Web, and this feature looks like the latest in a series of updates and policy changes that the company began rolling out late last year.

This Week In explores ongoing revelations and research on trending news topics.