Date: Sun, 6 Apr 2003 10:01:19 -0700 (PDT)
From: Svetlana Kurtes
Subject: Speaking Back: The Free Speech Versus Hate Speech Debate
Gelber, Katharine (2002) Speaking Back: The Free Speech Versus Hate
Speech Debate, John Benjamins Publishing Company, Discourse Approaches
to Politics, Society and Culture, 1.
Svetlana Kurtes, Language Centre, University of Cambridge, UK
This monograph elaborates on the concept of hate speech, examining more
closely an existing hate speech policy in practice in New South Wales,
Australia over a period of ten years. Katharine Gelber (henceforth: the
author) proposes a policy of 'speaking back', "providing institutional,
material and educational support to enable the victims of hate speech
to respond" (p. xiii).
The book comprises an introduction and six chapters:
1) The problem: an example of racial anti-vilification laws in
2) Expanding speech liberties: a capabilities approach;
3) Speech as conduct;
4) Hate speech as harmful conduct: the phenomenology of hate speech
5) Australia, the UK and the USA compared;
6) A policy of speaking back.
There are two appendices:
a) A summary of cases referred to in the book and derived from an
empirical study into the operation of the NSW racial anti-vilification
b) An outline of racial anti-vilification laws in Australian states,
other than New South Wales, and federally as at 2001.
The book also includes notes and references.
The author defines the concept of hate speech, or vilification, as
"speech which is particularly harmful because it contributes to a
climate of hatred and violence towards marginalised and disempowered
sectors of the community" (p. 1), violating "the basic human dignity of
its victims" (ibid.).
In Chapter 1 the author introduces the problem of hate speech within
the framework of New South Wales (henceforth: NSW) legislation, more
precisely a racial anti-vilification law enacted in 1989. All
vilification in this context is treated as a public act (p. 19), which
"occurs via a medium in which it is possible for greater, rather than
lesser, number of people to have heard the utterance" (ibid.). Three
empirical problems are presented, focusing on the issues of
understanding the framework of the legislation, its application and
finding an acceptable definition of hate speech in the legal context.
Chapter 2 expands the argument by looking into current liberal and
utilitarian understandings of free speech and the speech liberties. The
author advocates a broader conception of the notions, which includes "a
consideration of what the exercise of, or ability to exercise, the
speech liberty might be capable of doing in and for people's lives" (p.
5). In particular, major concepts of capability theory are made use of.
In essence an Aristotelian theory of ethics, capability theory was
elaborated further by Nussbaum (1990), reviving Aristotle's concept of
the 'excellent lawgiver', "whose job is to ensure that every individual
is able to enjoy and engage in activities conductive to human
Theoretical considerations are further broadened in Chapter 3. The
author examines speech act theory, suggesting that speech is to be
understood as a kind of conduct (pp. 6, 49ff). Austin's (1975)
distinction between locutionary, illocutionary and perlocutionary
speech acts are re-examined and combined with elements of Habermas'
(1984) theory of communicative action, namely the validity claims, "the
rules by which agreement may be reached on the meaning of a
communication, the claims raised by a speaker in communicative action"
(p. 7). The author further maintains that a validity claims model
provides a framework within which it is possible to identify hate
Chapter 4 provides a phenomenology of hate speech acts, which are
defined as "an utterance which perpetrates, perpetuates and maintains
discrimination" (p. 69). The author then looks more closely into three
examples of allegations of hate speech acts, analysing them in terms of
the proposed validity claims framework from the position of a critical
hearer. Another important proposition is also made in this chapter.
Namely, a policy of 'speaking back' is put forward. It can, according
to the author, provide hate speech victims with the opportunity to
respond, minimizing at the same time other negative perlocutionary
effects of hate speech.
Although the author emphasizes that a comprehensive examination of hate
speech legislation across the world is difficult if not impossible to
undertake, she has devoted Chapter 5 of her book to a comparative
analysis of hate speech policies in Australia, the United Kingdom and
the United States. The analysis performed shows that policy
implementation in each of the observed countries still shows certain
The final chapter elaborates further on the idea of 'speaking back', or
a process of 'institutionalised argumentation', allowing for "the
validity claims of hate speakers to be answered, in a manner which
challenges the validity claims raised" (p. 134). This process is also
seen as capable of constituting "a discursive construction of the goal
of eliminating racist discrimination" (ibid.).
The author concludes that a hate speech policy as proposed in the book
would allow "policy makers to consider how to enhance participation in
the exercise of the speech liberty" (p. 137), but also to reconsider
"who might, under current circumstances, be excluded from exercising
the speech liberty" (ibid.).
The present volume is a comprehensive, thoroughly examined and well
documented study on a topic that straddles several disciplines,
including discourse analysis, pragmatics, communication theory,
sociology, politics and law. The innovative theoretical approach
adopted, deriving basic claims from Austin and Habermas and developing
them further, is quite adequately deployed, thus enabling an insightful
analysis of this rather complex phenomenon. Even though the author puts
an emphasis on the legal, political and communicative aspects of hate
speech, the results of the analysis performed are no doubt relevant to
other disciplines as well, most notably discourse analysis, rhetoric,
It would certainly be very interesting to see what results this
analytical model would yield if applied to a different set of
parameters. What immediately springs to mind is, for example, language
of the media, or public communication in general, used by countries at
war. It seems that the media coverage of some of the more recent
conflicts, such as those in the Balkans or in the Gulf, is definitely
worth looking into again by using Gelber's analytical model. Discourse
analysts, who will no doubt welcome the appearance of this volume,
should certainly feel invited.
Austin, J L 1975. How to do things with words, 2nd edition, Clarendon
Habermas, J 1984. The theory of communicative action. Volume 1: Reason
and rationalization of society, Heinemann, London.
Nussbaum, M C 1990. "Aristotelian social democracy". In R Douglass and
G Mara (eds), Liberalism and the good, Routledge, New York.
| ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER Svetlana Kurtes holds a BA in English Philology and an MA in Sociolinguistics from Belgrade University and an MPhil in Applied Linguistics from Cambridge University. She worked as a Lecturer in English at Belgrade University and is currently affiliated to Cambridge University Language Centre. Her research interests involve contrastive linguistics, sociolinguistics, pragmatics/stylistics, translation theory and language pedagogy.