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The Internet is a limitless platform for information and data sharing. It is, in addition, however, a low-cost, high-speed dissemination mechanism that facilitates the spreading of hate speech, including violent and virtual threats. Indictment and prosecution for social media posts that transgress from opinion to incitable hate speech are appropriate in limited circumstances. Several real-world examples discussed here help to explore when limitations on Internet-based hate speech are appropriate.

In October 2015, twenty thousand Israelis joined a civil lawsuit filed against Facebook in the Supreme Court for the State of New York. Led by the civil rights organization Shurat HaDin, the suit alleges Facebook allows Palestinian extremists to openly recruit and train terrorists to plan violent attacks calling for the murder of Israeli Jews through their Facebook pages.

The suit raises important questions, including: When should the government initiate similar suits to impose criminal sanctions for targeted hate speech posted to Facebook? What constitute effective restrictions on social media that also balance society’s need for robust dialogue and free communication, subject to limitations reflecting a need for order and respect among people?

There is a lack of resolution in the ongoing free speech discussion, particularly as it relates to social media. This is quickly becoming a critical focal point given the range, power and impact of the Internet. Social media is how and where contentious public issues are played out. Sometimes, the tone is ugly; numerous examples abound of posts that are racist, hurtful, and deeply insulting. Civil discourse is rare; anonymity enables hatred and calls for violence and harm to others, whether individuals or groups.

The essence of democracy is guaranteeing—and protecting—civil and political rights. Foremost among these rights is freedom of speech. Liberal, democratic governments recognize the right to free speech. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to free speech. International conventions such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) similarly recognize it.

Free speech is essential for vibrant, robust and rigorous debate, disagreement and contention. It reflects a healthy society, facilitating differences of opinion while respecting tolerance of diversity and creativity. Speech can make us uncomfortable, challenge us, and push us out of our comfort zones.