Speech has power. Words do not fade.
What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.
--Abraham Heschel

Occasionally, Beliefnet members are surprised to be told that one of their posts has violated Beliefnet's Rules of Conduct on hate speech. I don't hate anyone, they may protest; I have strong views, but I would never hurt anyone. You may not realize how your words could possibly cause anyone harm. On this page we will attempt to explain the rule, and why its necessary, and try to help you learn how to express your thoughts without violating the rule.

What exactly is hate speech?

On Beliefnet, the term hate speech refers specifically to speech that may cause violence toward someone (even if unintentionally) because of their age, disability, gender, ethnicity, race, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation. Hate speech is not the same thing as hateful speech. Saying that you hate someone, or insulting them, even in the extreme, is not necessarily hate speech. Hate speech sets up conditions for violence against one or more people, because they are a member of a protected group, in one of these ways:

  • advocating violence (i.e. kill them)
  • saying that violence would be acceptable (i.e. they ought to die)
  • saying that violence is deserved (i.e. they had it coming)
  • dehumanizing or degrading them, perhaps by characterizing them as guilty of a heinous crime, perversion, or illness, such that violence may seem allowable or inconsequential
  • making analogies or comparisons suggesting any of the above (i.e. they are like murderers)

Beliefnet has zero tolerance for hate speech.

Why is this rule necessary?

But words cannot hurt anyone, you might think. Alas, this is not so. All hate crimes start out as hate speech: words planted a seed in a receptive mind or heart.

Several high profile hate crimes have been inspired by rhetoric posted on websites. A man who shot ten people in a racially motivated shooting spree told an interviewer, It wasn't really til I got on the Internet, read some literature that...it really all came together. Another killer, inspired by what he read on the Internet, murdered two gay men and set fire to a synagogue.

In 2003, the FBI recorded 2,262 hate crimes in the U.S. in which the victim was violently injured: 1,536 because of their race, 109 because of their religion, and 617 because of their sexual orientation. 5 people were murdered because of their race, and 6 people were murdered because of their sexual orientation. According to the FBI, these crimes were motivated by "the offender's irrational antagonism" toward the victim because of the victim's race, religion, or sexual orientation. How many of the offenders formed this antagonism, in part, from what they read on the Internet?

We know it is unlikely that any Beliefnet member would intentionally harm anyone. But even if you do not intend it, your hate speech could provoke someone else to cause harm. No matter how peaceful your intent may be, we cannot take the risk that something posted on Beliefnet could ultimately inspire a violent act.

What about freedom of speech?

Beliefnet places a high value on freedom of expression. We also place a high value on nurturing the highest quality of dialogue possible, by building a safe community in which people of many different beliefs are all equally free to talk about their faith and spirituality. Our members are interested in debate which is civil, safe, open and fair. In the presence of hate speech, the quality of our community suffers.

Beliefnet does not make judgments about anyone's beliefs, no matter how controversial. We are not suggesting that you should change any of your beliefs. But it is appropriate for us to place very minimal limits on how you express your beliefs, in the interest of the safety of our members and the health of our community. It can be very difficult to strike a balance between freedom and responsibility. Even Benjamin Franklin, a famous proponent of free speech, advised us to temper freedom with responsibility. In his Apology for Printers he said, I have always refused to print such things as might do real injury to any person.

Hate speech is legal in the United States. Americans may choose to read or engage in hate speech. Likewise, Americans may choose to gather in groups where they mutually agree upon standards of conduct that do not include hate speech. As a private website, Beliefnet is a choice for those who want civil discussion that is free of hate speech. When speech could incite harm to individuals, harm to the Beliefnet community, or harm to Beliefnet is appropriate for us to place limits on it. If you wish to engage in hate speech, there are numerous options available on the Internet. This is not one of them.

What about homosexuality?

We recognize that many faith groups are engaged in important debate about homosexuality and its relationship to faith. We encourage members to discuss this topic on Beliefnet and have created specific forums for this debate.

We feel certain that most members would be horrified to learn that something they posted on Beliefnet had inspired an unseen reader to hurt another human being. Therefore we trust that our members will recognize that they must exercise responsibility in the way they express themselves.

Beliefnet does not make judgments about your beliefs, no matter how controversial or unpopular. We are not suggesting that you should change any of your beliefs. We have placed very minimal limits on how you express your beliefs about homosexuality, in the interest of the safety of our members and the health of our community.

You may express the belief that homosexuality is wrong, or that it is sinful. You may discuss the Bible or other sacred texts and what you think they say about homosexuality. (You should, however, expect that others will disagree with you.)

You may not advocate violence against anyone because of their sexual orientation. It is a violation of the Rules of Conduct to say that anyone deserves violence because of their sexual orientation, or that they had it coming. It is a violation of the Rules of Conduct to assert that there is any connection between pedophilia and homosexuality. It is a violation of the Rules of Conduct to compare homosexuality to any crime, paraphilia, or illness. It is a violation of the Rules of Conduct to say anything else that dehumanizes or degrades anyone because of their sexual orientation, such that violence against them seems acceptable or inconsequential.

Given these specific limitswhich are very minimalthere is plenty of room for productive discussion and debate about same-sex issues on Beliefnet, without the risk of inspiring an unseen reader to violence.