UCL Faculty of Laws


The criminalisation of dangerous speech

22 June 2016, 4:00 pm–6:00 pm

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Yale-UCL Workshop in Legal Philosophy


UCL Pearson G22 LT, Pearson Building, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT

Speaker: Dr Jeffrey Howard (University College London)
Admission: Free

The Yale-UCL Workshop in Legal Philosophy is an annual seminar series alternating between UCL and Yale. It features work in progress presented by UCL and Yale Faculty, as well as speakers from other universities. It is co-convened by Professor Scott Shapiro (Yale Law School) and Professor George Letsas (University College London).

About the lecture

One of the most powerful arguments against hate speech is that it is dangerous: it increases the likelihood that listeners will engage in violence and discrimination against targeted groups. Banning hate speech, then, is justified as a strategy for crime prevention. Among the most important scholarly objections to this argument is that it is incompatible with a view of listeners as autonomous. If we regard moral agents as capable of making up their own minds about what to believe and do, as we surely should, we cannot countenance efforts by the state to censor the principles and proposals to which they are exposed.

This paper aims to evaluate whether this autonomy objection to bans on dangerous speech is persuasive, focusing on a particular problem the objection faces. If hateful speech should remain legal because listeners can make up their own minds about whether to embrace and act on its sinister message, why shouldn’t ordinary incitement to crime (such as exhorting someone to commit a murder) be legal for the same reason? Defenders of the autonomy objection to hate speech bans are impaled on the horns of a dilemma. Either they should embrace the legalisation of incitement to crime—thereby running afoul of both established Western legal practice and widespread moral conviction—or else they should renounce their autonomy-based opposition to bans on hate speech.

About the speaker

Jeffrey Howard joined UCL in September 2015 as Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Political Theory and Normative Methods. Before coming to UCL, he spent two years as Lecturer in Political Philosophy in the Department of Government at the University of Essex, where he earned the 2015 Best Lecturer Award from the Student Union. He holds a DPhil (2013) and MPhil (2010) from Nuffield College at Oxford University, where he worked with Jeremy Waldron and David Miller. He earned his undergraduate degree (2008) from Harvard University.

Dr. Howard’s scholarly interests lie in political, moral, and legal philosophy. He is at work on two projects. The first concerns the ethics of crime prevention in conditions of structural injustice, focusing on moral debates about policing, punishment, and mass incarceration. The second concerns the philosophical problem of intervening agency, whereby a person’s choices indirectly result in harm to others due to the conduct of some intervening person. As part of this project, he is writing articles on hate speech and the limits of free expression, the moral status of provoked killings, and the ethics of paying ransoms to terrorists. He holds a 2015 Rising Star Engagement Award from the British Academy.

Dr. Howard teaches the autumn graduate course Public Ethics and the spring graduate course Equality, Justice, and Difference. Next year he will begin teaching a new course in Normative Methods to second-year undergraduates in the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics programme.