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Navigating The Free Speech Dilemma and Tackling Hate Speech

International Education Day is observed annually on January 24th. This year, UNESCO's theme, 'Learning for Lasting Peace,' addresses the critical issue of hate speech.

The journey towards the establishment of International Education Day gained momentum in 2018 when the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution proclaiming January 24th as International Day of Education. The resolution was co-sponsored by Nigeria and 58 other member states.

Navigating the Free Speech Dilemma and Tackling Hate Speech

In this article, we will shed light on the issue of hate speech, its close similarity with free speech and will see how simple approaches can help combat the issue.

Understanding The Anatomy of Hate Speech:

Hate speech is a hurtful form of speech, which incites violence or hatred towards someone for their physical, characteristic traits or cultural beliefs.

Today, unfortunately hate speech is not just confined to the fringes of our society; but has become most prevalent among young students. A 2019 report by the National Council on Teacher Quality brings forth shocking data. The report highlights that more than 60% of the teachers have witnessed some form of hate speech in their classrooms.

And not only teachers, students also highlight similar concerns. One in five American student has personally witnessed and reported hatful incidents on their campuses, a report by Southern Poverty Law centre found.

Another report by Anti-Defamation League, published in 2021, highlights critical figures about the alarming hate content towards LGBTQ students, 76% of which reported experiencing some form of bullying based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the past year.

This is a matter of serious concern because the distress caused by hate speech can significantly impact the psychological and academic performance of young students. This is also backed by the research. A recent study published by University of Cambridge found that students who experience hate speech in school are more likely to have lower academic achievement along with higher absenteeism rates. Another study by American Psychological association indicated that exposure to hate speech can lead to severe anxiety and depression among students. Overall, it can be stated that the psychological wounds inflicted by hate speech can be deep and long-lasting. 

Navigating The Free Speech Dilemma:

However, the prime issue faced in this scenario is the prime distinction between free speech and hate speech. Speech considered offensive by some might be seen as protected expression by others. 

The issue is even more prevalent in countries with strong free speech protections like the United States, which witnessed more than 300 cases of hate speech in 2018. Here, hate speech is generally not illegal unless it meets specific criteria such as inciting violence or imminent harm. Under such cases, legal framework leaves ample room for offensive speech.

On top of that, shocking take of people on hate speech is brought forward by Pew research centre’s survey results, where 72% of Americans believe offensive but non-threatening speech should be protected by free speech, while 20% believe it should be restricted. This means that people not only believe that use of offensive language is ok, but also wishes to protect it under law. This challenges us to think about the kind of society we all are living in.

We understand that the dilemma begins at school and should be differentiated clearly at the school level only, but lack of transparent distinction between free speech and hate speech by the law makes it tricky for educational institutes to draft effective policies around it.

Combating Hate Speech:

Sarah Morris, a Chicago Public School teacher, witnessed firsthand the detrimental impact of bias-based incidents and discriminatory language within her school community. The students in her community faced bullying hurtful language and harassment.

Morris, inspired by restorative justice principles, implemented restorative justice circles as a way to address these issues. These circles bring together students involved in conflicts, along with facilitators, to discuss the impact of their actions.

Under these groups, a safe space for open and inclusive dialogue is promoted. Facilitators gently guide the conversation with thought-provoking questions. Questions such as ‘how did the incident made you feel’ or ‘what do you think is the long-term solution to this problem’ are put forward to urge everyone to reflect on their own feelings and the impact their actions had on others. The circle then shifts towards repairing the harm inflicted. Finally, a plan for the future is forged.

The results through this practice were remarkable. Studies documented a significant drop in hate speech and bullying. Soon, Morris' work had transcended the walls of her own school. In early 2010s, Morris participated in the American Educational Research Association (AERA) annual meeting. Years later, her work has been referenced in different publications as a successful case study to address hate speech in schools.


As we reflect on International Education Day and UNESCO's theme of "Learning for Lasting Peace," the urgent need to address the pervasive issue of hate speech in educational settings becomes evident. Initiatives such as Harvard's committee on Academic Freedom highlight efforts to champion free speech on campuses. Yet, the struggle to define and combat hate speech persists.

By prioritizing inclusive and fair dialogue in schools, we can build educational environments where lasting peace isn't just a theme for a day but a tangible reality for all.

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