New Evidence Shows Increasing Public Support for Hate Speech Laws post-Brexit

Dr. Alex Brown examines a new YouGov poll which shows a rise in public support for hate speech laws since 2017.

The new poll follows up on a previous survey carried out by YouGov back in 2017, looking at British attitudes concerning laws banning the stirring up of hatred.

In 2017 the survey of just over 2,000 British adults found that 65% thought it should be against the law to use threatening words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up hatred against people on grounds of their mental or physical disabilities. This was higher even than the 63% who supported existing laws which already cover race, religion, and sexual orientation. A smaller majority of 57% thought that these laws should also be extended to cover gender identity.

How have the attitudes changed since then? The new YouGov survey shows that now 71% think it should be against the law to use threatening words or behaviour with the intention of stirring up hatred against other people on grounds of their mental or physical disabilities. The number supporting the existing legislation covering race, religion and sexual orientation has also increased to 66%. The same majority of 57% still think these laws should be extended to cover gender identity.

Back in 2014 the Law Commission came out against extending incitement to hatred laws to cover gender identity and disability, citing lack of evidence of the relevant conduct.

But the issue has not gone away.

Public concern about the stirring up of hatred against women and people with disabilities has risen partly as a consequence of high-profile Incel (‘involuntary celibate’) inspired mass killings in North America and the murder of disabled people in Japan in July 2016—both incidents occurred after the attackers had stirred up hatred online or through the sending of public letters to politicians.

Brexit may also be having an indirect effect: there could be an increasing public unease about the use of incendiary or threatening language against vulnerable groups or minorities across the board.

More specifically, perhaps there is a growing sense that although cases of ideologically-driven incitement to hatred against women or people with disabilities may not be as common as racist, Islamophobic or even homophobic hate speech, they do exist and are also socially corrosive and dangerous.

As with all incitement to hatred legislation, part of the function is to tackle the climate of hatred to which certain forms of intentional, threatening language contributes—a climate in which subsequent acts of discrimination or violence are more likely even if they are hard to predict and lack direct causation.

Women and people with disabilities also deserve to live in a society in which the law reflects their status as equals, who enjoy parity of protection from the law.

A very large number of countries across the globe have laws banning incitement to hatred. And among those countries some extend the protection not merely to race, religion and sexual orientation but also to gender identity and/or disability (e.g. Australia, Canada, France, Macedonia, the Netherlands, South Africa)

The Law Commission is currently undertaking a full review into these issues, and wider hate crime policy reform. As part of that process it is consulting with specialists.

At a policy summit held at the University of East Anglia (UEA) on 12 June, delegates—including representatives of the Law Commission as well as the Ministry of Justice together with leading academics and community stakeholders—were presented with several concrete examples of hate speech against women and people with disabilities.

Proposals were also made on how to build in ‘freedom of expression’ clauses into any new legislation, to guarantee the right to merely discuss, debate or express controversial views about gender and disability—akin to similar clauses found in the existing legislation.

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 1,625 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 9th – 10th May 2019. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Dr. Alex Brown is Reader at the University of East Anglia, UK

The title image was originally posted to Flickr by Keith Allison at It was reviewed on 10 May 2017 by FlickreviewR and was confirmed to be licensed under the terms of the cc-by-sa-2.0.

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