Hate speech

What is hate speech?

Hate speech is communication that incites hatred against one person or a group of people. The communication may consist of speech, but it may also take other forms such as texts, pictures, symbols, music, drawings and films. 

According to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, the term “hate speech” covers all forms of expression that spread, incite, promote or justify racial hatred, xenophobia, antisemitism or other forms of hatred based on intolerance.  Hate speech may be related to skin colour, national or ethnic origin, religion or belief, sexual orientation or disability, for example. The purpose of hate speech is in most cases to create an image of people who are members of a specific minority group as suspicious, unreliable or inferior. Hate speech often severely violates the human dignity of another person.

Hate speech may constitute discrimination prohibited by the Non-discrimination Act

The Non-Discrimination Ombudsman is tasked with assessing hate speech from the perspective of the prohibition of discrimination of the Non-Discrimination Act. Hate speech may constitute illegal discrimination under the Non-Discrimination Act, even if it may not always meet the statutory definition of an offence.

Speech or expression that infringes the dignity of a person, who is most often a member of a minority group, by creating a degrading or humiliating, intimidating, hostile or offensive environment towards the person is harassment prohibited as discrimination based on the Non-Discrimination Act. However, behaviour infringing the dignity of a person does not need to focus directly on a specific person to constitute harassment, it may also focus on a group of people. 

In addition to written and spoken expressions, the presentation and other communication of material that infringes human dignity, for example, may also constitute harassment in violation of the Non-discrimination Act. Harassment may occur regardless of the medium or environment of communication, such as in social media. Disseminating links that contain hate speech may also constitute hate speech. 

What are the effects of hate speech?

Hate speech focuses on people and groups who are selected as targets due to their background, personal characteristics, duties and statements. The aim of hate speech is often to exclude specific persons and groups from the society or silence certain groups of people. Hate speech has extensive negative human and social effects. Hate speech is especially harmful to persons and minority groups who are in a vulnerable position in other ways, too.

The objective of hate speech is increasingly often to influence social discussion and decision-making. The aim of hate speech that focuses on politicians, activists, public officials, journalists, police officers, prosecutors and judges, for example, is to influence the core of the constitutional state, and it may have extensive negative effects on the functioning of the democratic system.

Hate speech may also meet the statutory definition of an offence

Punishable hate speech is communication that meets the statutory definition of an offence. Common offences associated with punishable hate speech include ethnic agitation (defamation), dissemination of information violating personal privacy as well as breach of the sanctity of religion. From the point of view of the society, ethnic agitation is an especially serious offence; in the worst case, it can lead to the persecution of members of ethnic minorities and violence against them, for example. 

A person guilty of punishable hate speech is most commonly sentenced to a fine, but if the acts mentioned above are aggravated, they may also result in imprisonment.

Hate speech and freedom of speech

When assessing hate speech, a person’s freedom of speech must also be taken into account. The freedom of speech and opinion are central basic and human rights. The Constitution of Finland safeguards everyone’s right to express, disseminate and receive information, opinions and other communications without prior prevention by anyone. However, the freedom of speech has its limits. The central rights of other people must not be infringed on the basis of freedom of speech. For example, criticising politics is a part of functional democracy. In contrast, infringing, threatening or insulting the human dignity of persons or groups of people is not allowed.

In many cases, the European Court of Human Rights has outlined what kind of statements are not within the scope of the protected freedom of speech. For example, even sharp criticism of immigration policy is within the scope of the freedom of speech, but expressions that are racist, misogynistic, homo- and transphobic as well as Islamophobic and antisemitic in nature infringe basic and human rights and threaten the exercise of democratic rights to act, and therefore they do not enjoy the protection of freedom of speech. Read more from the fact sheet of the European Court of Human Rights.

Report hate speech

If you see hate speech somewhere, such as on a website and you suspect that it is illegal, you can report it to the police with an online net tip form, for example. You can also file such a report with the police anonymously. 

Discussion forums, social media services and other communication channels often also have their own methods of reporting hate speech. The methods used often include contacting the administration or using the service’s internal reporting channel. 

The platform administrator is also responsible in a situation, for example, in which illegal material on the website is brought to the administrator’s attention, but despite this, the administrator consciously allows the material to be kept on the administrator’s website and does not take any measures to remove it.

You can also report hate speech to the Non-Discrimination Ombudsman, if you suspect that the hate speech constitutes harassment in violation of the Non-Discrimination Act. You can also file such a report anonymously. 

More information on hate speech

You can find more information on hate speech here, for example: