There is no legal definition of "hate speech" under U.S. law, just as there is no legal definition for evil ideas, rudeness, unpatriotic speech, or any other kind of speech that people might condemn. Generally, however, 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. 1
In the United States, hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. Courts extend this protection on the grounds that the First Amendment requires the government to strictly protect robust debate on matters of public concern even when such debate devolves into distasteful, offensive, or hateful speech that causes others to feel grief, anger, or fear. (The Supreme Court's decision in Snyder v. Phelps provides an example of this legal reasoning.) Under current First Amendment jurisprudence, hate speech can only be criminalized when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group.
For the purposes of collecting statistics, the FBI has defined a hate crime as a “criminal offense against a person or property motivated in whole or in part by an offender’s bias against a race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity,” including skin color and national origin. Hate crimes are overt acts that can include acts of violence against persons or property, violation or deprivation of civil rights, certain "true threats," or acts of intimidation, or conspiracy to commit these crimes. The Supreme Court has upheld laws that either criminalize these acts or impose a harsher punishment when it can be proven that the defendant targeted the victim because of the victim's race, ethnicity, identity, or beliefs. A hate crime is more than than offensive speech or conduct; it is specific criminal behavior that ranges from property crimes like vandalism and arson to acts of intimidation, assault, and murder. Victims of hate crimes can include institutions, religious organizations and government entities as well as individuals.
All libraries should be welcoming and inclusive spaces for all library users, library workers, and members of the community. Each library user has the the right to use the library free of discrimination and loss of individual safety; library workers also have a right to a safe workplace free from bias and discrimination. Hateful conduct should never be tolerated in the library. A library's policies on user behavior and workplace safety and conduct should address hateful conduct as a violation of those policies. Libraries should be prepared to prosecute, or support prosecution, of all bias-motivated criminal acts and provide aid and support to victims of such crimes and those targeted by hateful conduct.
Responding to Hateful Speech and Hate Crime
Reports of hateful speech and hate crimes in libraries is escalating in a time when reported hate crimes are at an all time high. The American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services have prepared a white paper, Hateful Conduct in Libraries: Supporting Library Workers and Patrons to provide additional guidance for librarians struggling with issues of hate and intolerance.
In responding to hate speech and hateful conduct, public libraries should be aware that they operate under the First and Fourteenth Amendments and the associated court opinions governing access to the library as a designated public forum. There is an established body of case law holding that public libraries are a type of public forum, and that every person using a public library has a First Amendment right to access, use and take advantage of all the services the public library has to offer, without regard to the person's background, identity or economic status or their beliefs, opinions, or views. This is consistent with ALA's support for intellectual freedom, as expressed in ALA's Library Bill of Rights, which states that "a person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views."
Thus, under law, public libraries cannot discriminate against a library user or deny the user access to library resources and services based upon their views or beliefs. This principle applies to the provision of access to books, media, programming and the internet as well as publicly available meeting room space.
Knowing that the presence and activities of some groups in public libraries, while constitutionally protected, can cause fear and discomfort in some library users and staff, there are some strategies public libraries can employ to embrace their role as welcoming, inclusive, and responsible spaces that go beyond the adoption and enforcement of user behavior policies.
One strategy is to forgo the provision of public meeting room spaces for all users, allowing the library to fully control the messaging that takes place in its building and spaces. A second strategy is to employ the library's right under the First Amendment to speak in its own voice as a government agency about matters of importance. The library can exercise its prerogative to convey strong messaging that counters messages of bias, hatred and discrimination. Such messaging can be proactive, affirmative, and ongoing as well as a reaction to an incident of hateful conduct or speech. Libraries, could, for example, mount prominent signage throughout the library and in meeting rooms announcing its support for equality, diversity, and inclusion, and its belief in the human dignity of all persons, especially those in marginalized communities. Library-sponsored programming and services can echo this message.
Both the Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services are available to provide assistance, counsel and support to libraries considering these strategies.
ALA Resources, Statements and Policies
Assistance and Consultation
Hate crimes can be reported on the OIF Challenge Reporting form.
The staff of the Office for Intellectual Freedom is available to answer questions or provide assistance to librarians, trustees, educators and the public about hate speech and hate crimes. Areas of assistance include policy development, First Amendment issues, and professional ethics. Inquiries can be directed via email to email@example.com or via phone at (312) 280-4226.
ALA's Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services (ODLOS) works in close coordination with the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) to respond to incidents that have been reported, as well as units across the Association and its affiliates as needed. However, if library staff have encountered hate speech that may not be defined as a crime, we acknowledge that the impact can be traumatizing. We encourage you to reach out to ODLOS at firstname.lastname@example.org, or directly contact ODLOS Interim Director Kristin Lahurd.