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Responding to a Coworker’s Hate Speech

Responding to a Coworker’s Hate Speech

Speech and speech-like activities, like wearing slogans on clothing or hanging posters, can sometimes veer into uncomfortable territory at work. The idea of “hate speech” has been with us as a legal concept for more than two decades now. It doesn’t have a fixed definition in U.S. law. One way to define it is as any expression that is intended to call out a group or class of persons, such as members of a specific race or religious sect, for ridicule, humiliation, or hatred.

Although hate speech may be offensive, it is not, by itself, illegal. Last year the U.S. Supreme Court explained it this way: “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express the thought that we hate.” Matal v. Tam, 582 U.S. ___ (2017). In short, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects most speech from being regulated by the law.

Regulating hate speech is difficult in part because its definition is ambiguous. What kind of speech constitutes “inciting hatred” against a group? Can a member of a group incite hatred against his or her own group? Where does mere criticism, however harsh, end and hatred begin? Answering these questions is not easy, and to a certain degree their answers are left to the particular sensibilities of the listener.

That does not mean that offensive speech at work should go unchallenged. A critical first step is to notify a manager about the problem. There are several reasons why employers should take action to put a stop to hate speech among their workers:

  • Antidiscrimination laws. Hate speech can create a hostile work environment for people who are members of the targeted group. Hate speech that is frequent or severe enough, together with other facts, may expose the employer to questions about discriminatory practices. An employer has an obligation to take reasonable steps to prevent harassment in the workplace.
  • Emotional distress. Being verbally ridiculed or threatened at work can be emotional traumatizing. If the employer does not take steps to stop the bad behavior it may be facilitating the harm.
  • Preventing violence. Hate speech often has an inciteful character, intended to encourage violence or abuse and potentially inviting a similar reaction from people who are offended by it. Employers have a strong incentive to diffuse tensions between employees before they escalate into a more serious situation where people might get hurt.

The law firm of Greenman Goldberg Raby Martinez represents working people in the Las Vegas area in cases involving personal injury, discrimination, and other disputes. If you have questions about how to handle hate speech in your workplace call us today for a free attorney consultation at 702-388-4476 or send us a request on our contact page.