The adjudication of hate speech involving religion across North America and Europe hinges on the legal distinction between attacks on a religious group and attacks on a group’s beliefs. Whereas an attack on a religious group, if deemed sufficiently hateful or extreme, is often a punishable offense, an attack on a group’s beliefs is typically considered allowable speech. Even more, criticism of individual or group beliefs or practices is seen not only as within an individual’s right to free expression, but necessary for maintaining a liberal public sphere. What are the implications of this distinction today, at a time when vitriolic speech pervades political discourse? How might scholars nuance prevailing understandings of the new free speech environment in North America and Europe through comparative analysis? And what of contexts beyond these two geographies? How global has this environment become?

Scholars from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds were invited to consider the ways in which the legal distinction between belief and believer is negotiated socially and jurisprudentially across a range of contemporary political contexts. Their essays engage protracted debates over whether religious beliefs, sacred symbols, or venerated persons should be protected from criticism or insult. Just as significantly, these contributions account for the conditions under which such debates emerge. Indeed, whether a society has a longstanding tradition of regulating hate speech or has only recently inaugurated regulatory controls, anxieties surrounding the presence and influence of allegedly heterodox beliefs, communities, and values undergird legal innovation in this area. Such anxieties concern—among other circumstances—the competition over finite economic resources, bids for electoral office, increasing rates of immigration, and fear of civilizational decline.

Several contributors to this forum further consider whether the reluctance to view anti-Muslim speech as hate speech is now changing. What political conditions have emerged to make such a shift possible, and what obstacles persist in classifying anti-Muslim claims as hate speech? How does the jurisprudence on these issues vary within and across national courts as compared to supranational tribunals? When courts advocate or uphold legal interpretations contrary to majority public opinion, how is that fissure experienced among the targets of hate speech? Under what conditions do individuals and communities targeted by hate speech become litigious, and how are disagreements among them about what constitutes harm resolved? Might we conceive of hate speech jurisprudence as an emerging arena for political competition?

As the forum contributors show, the migration of hate speech into the political mainstream through social media and other digital platforms, as well as the burgeoning genre of alarmist writing, not only makes speech of this kind more difficult to regulate, but also transforms the standards by which what qualifies as hateful speech are determined. Such circulation raises additional questions about how speech harms—how, that is, harm is embodied and felt—particularly when a group is both the source and target of hate speech, or when hateful speech targets membership across lines of religious, racial, ethnic, sexual or other social difference. Drawing on a range of research expertise, contributors to this forum probe the legal distinction upon which the resolution of these cases often depends: How possible is it in fact to prohibit speech against a rights-bearing individual and not against the beliefs that an individual holds dear? At what point does such a distinction undermine, rather than ensure, liberal critique?