FACT CHECK: Chris Christie Claims There Is A ‘Big Difference’ Between Free Speech And Hate Speech

Christine Sellers | Fact Check Reporter

In an Oct. 28 speech at the Republican Jewish Coalition Conference, 2024 hopeful and former New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie claimed there is a “big difference” between free speech and hate speech.

Verdict: Misleading

Hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, according to experts and organizations. Some organizations say there’s a difference between free speech and hate speech, though acknowledge it is protected expression.

Fact Check:

Online threats of Antisemitism are being investigated at Cornell University, the university’s President Martha E. Pollack said in an Oct. 29 statement, according to CNN. The threats allegedly claimed Jewish students would be shot at the 104 West building, which houses a kosher dining hall, the outlet reported.

During his speech, Christie made the claim in reference to Antisemitism on college campuses amid the current Israel-Hamas conflict, saying Antisemitism is not a new occurrence and is “hidden behind the falsity of free speech.” “There is a difference between free speech and hate speech, everyone. There is a difference between free speech and violence. There is a difference between incitement and free speech. What’s going on on our college campuses today is not free speech, it is hate speech,” Christie said.

According to the American Library Association (ALA), there is no legal definition of hate speech under U.S. law. However, the association generally defines hate speech as “any form of expression through which speakers intend to vilify, humiliate, or incite hatred against a group or a class of persons on the basis of race, religion, skin color, sexual identity, gender identity, ethnicity, disability, or national origin.” The association cites a journal article from the University of Miami Law Review authored by Kenneth Ward when defining hate speech.

Likewise, the association indicates hate speech is protected by the First Amendment and can only be criminalized when it prompts criminal activity or consists of a specific threat targeted at a person or group.

Additionally, the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee notes that hate speech is “generally protected by the First Amendment.” The university also notes that public universities are bound by the First Amendment and, therefore, must follow the rulings of legal cases, such as Doe v. Michigan, which state that rulings on hate speech conflict with the protections offered by the First Amendment as they apply to freedom of expression.

Furthermore, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) states the First Amendment does not include an exception for hate speech. Citing Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ 1929 dissent in United States v. Schwimmer, FIRE indicates the U.S. Supreme Court has identified broad protections for “the thought that we hate” under the First Amendment.

The liberal think tank Center for American Progress (CAP) said in 2017 that there’s a difference between free speech and hate speech, and while individual expression should be respected on college campuses, hate speech “actively promoted” by universities is “outside the bounds of free speech.” (RELATED: No, German Satirical Magazine Cover Does Not Show Comparison Between Israelis And Ukrainians)

Similarly, in 2019, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) analyzed the link role between social media and hate speech, identifying multiple incidents around the world where violence was linked to online activity. Among the various incidents referenced in the piece was the 2015 shooting carried out by Dylann Roof at a South Carolina church in which he killed nine black worshippers and clergy members. Roof became “self-radicalized” online, according to CFR, citing an article from The Washington Post.

Dr. Jane Bambauer, a free speech expert at the University of Florida, explained hate speech in relation to free speech via an email to Check Your Fact.

“There is a difference between protected free speech and incitement to violence. However, incitement has a specific and narrow definition under First Amendment caselaw. It requires the speaker to intend the listener to take immediate unlawful action. Hate speech, odious as it is, is protected speech. The university has great power to engage in counter-messaging, though,” Bambauer said.

Dr. John Watson, a free speech and First Amendment theory expert at American University, called out Christie’s statements as “metaphorical.”

“The former governor’s statements are largely metaphorical and rhetorical; things that are not purely, factually verifiable. But as a matter of First Amendment law, as explained by and defined by U.S. Supreme Court rulings, hate speech is legally permissible because of free speech. But in a legal sense, they are not the same in all circumstances. One protects the other.

Ironically, the First Amendment’s guarantee of speech freedom provides the greatest protection to what we call ‘hate speech’ in 2023. Hate speech nowadays is in the same well protected category as political speech. The First Amendment protects the use of hateful, bigoted epithets against the president, mayors and all other political leaders. Hate speech is by law: political, cultural, and social speech. It gets extraordinary freedom via the First Amendment.

Distinguishing free speech from hate speech is like comparing apples to momentum in that it makes no sense until you provide the context of gravity and Sir Isaac Newton,” Watson said.

“Next, if hate speech (or any type of speech) incites violence (as Christie claims is happening on campuses), it is transformed by law, into ‘fighting words’ which gets absolutely no First Amendment protection. Which means campus officials could legally ban or punish it. However, universities (even private universities – these aren’t bound by the First Amendment) largely have embraced an absolutist take on free speech that goes beyond the First Amendment. Hate speech and the resultant violence that Christie condemns are among the costs of free speech.”

“Christie says ‘we must call out that difference’ between hate speech and free speech. As a lawyer, he could have spelled out that difference much better. But the metaphorical and rhetorical punch would have fizzled,” he added.

Check Your Fact has contacted FIRE and multiple free speech experts for comment and will update this piece accordingly if one is received.

Christine Sellers

Fact Check Reporter