Hate speech vs offensive expressions

There is a fine line between what can and cannot be considered to be hate speech. While offensive statements or content might be easy to recognize, determining whether it can be considered to be hate speech might be difficult.

Expressions which are merely offensive cannot automatically be considered to be hate speech. Indeed, freedom of expression is applicable not only to statements or content that is well received or regarded as inoffensive or neutral. It also applies to those that offend, shock or disturb.

Therefore, it is important to carefully distinguish hate speech from other insulting, unpopular or extreme views and expressions.

example A statement can be contrary to the majority’s opinion, considered offensive and feel hateful, but not exactly incite hatred or violence.


To distinguish hate speech from legitimate public debate, it is necessary to consider the following principles:

  • the content of the particular expressions

  • the context in which they have been expressed

  • the aim of the author of these expressions

  • the way the audience has perceived these expressions

Reporting on hate speech

While reporting on issues of racism or in broadcasting a public debate, the press and the media might openly show examples of hate speech. However, mere reporting on issues of public interest should not be confused with endorsing the expressions themselves.

example A journalist may publish an interview with a racist youth organization during which members of the organization express their openly racist slogan. The journalist and publisher cannot be held liable for these slogans if he/she has clearly disassociated himself from these views and they were only published to inform the public about racism as a current and much debated social issue.


Last updated 18/03/2024