Hate speech is speech directed at an individual or group which is intended to disparage on the basis of personal characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, religious beliefs, or race. Rather than simply being rude, hate speech crosses the line into abusive, intimidating, or harassing speech. For example, saying “all women are stupid” is not considered hate speech, although it is not a particularly nice thing to say. By contrast, inciting a crowd to go kill all of the women in a community simply because they are women is an example of such speech.
Many nations have laws on the books addressing hate speech. When it is designed to incite prejudice and to goad people to take some sort of action, especially violent action, it may be prosecutable under the law. For instance, if people hold a racially-motivated rally and people of a minority racial group are beaten by rally attendees, the people who sponsored the rally may be charged with hate speech under the rationale that their actions directly led to violence.
Countries which protect free speech have difficulty regulating hate speech. In the United States, for example, speech is explicitly protected under the First Amendment to the Constitution, no matter how upsetting, divisive, or inflammatory it may be. People in the United States are free to express opinions in public places and their speech cannot be regulated by law, and this includes hate speech. However, if it can be demonstrated that such speech is occurring as part of an act of physical abuse, harassment, or intimidation, it may be possible to pursue it under the law, with the crime being prosecuted as a hate crime.
In a simple example, if an employee is constantly verbally harassed at work by people who attack that employee on the basis of her or his religion, their actions are considered hate speech. Because they create an unsafe work environment, the employer can be held legally liable for allowing the harassment to continue. The speech itself is protected, but the abusive behavior to the employee is not. Likewise, if abuse is shouted at a gay couple while they walk down the street and it escalates into physical violence, this is illegal and it is considered a hate crime because the couple was attacked on the basis of their membership in a minority group.
Hate speech is an especially fraught issue in some areas of Europe, where laws have been specifically passed to address issues such as Holocaust denial. Laws addressing antisemitism are also quite strict in some parts of Europe in response to the events of the Second World War.
It is also important to note that in nations which do preserve free speech rights, these rights apply to government regulations and public places. They do not apply to private locations and individual entities. Many colleges and universities, for example, have speech codes outlawing hate speech which are perfectly legal. Likewise, private organizations such as websites can indicate that such speech will not be tolerated in their comments and this is not a violation of the law either.