What is hate speech?

Hate speech promotes hatred or violence against individuals or groups based on certain attributes. It is not protected by freedom of expression and can be lawfully prevented and punished.


Hate speech is any form of incitement, spreading or justification of hate and violence against an individual or a group of people based on certain attributes, such as race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, beliefs or health condition.

What can be considered hate speech?

There is a fine line between what can and cannot be considered hate speech. Therefore, it is important to carefully distinguish hate speech from other insulting, unpopular or extreme views and expressions. For example, a statement can be contrary to the majority’s opinion, considered offensive and feel hateful, but it might not exactly incite hatred or violence. Read more about how to recognise hate speech.

Forms of expression

Hate speech involves not only public verbal statements, but can also be expressed in other forms such as pictures, films, cartoons etc.

example A TV interview where immigrants from Africa are compared to monkeys, or where a series of articles are published portraying a particular ethnic group as a source of evil in the country and inciting the use of violence against this group.

It is important to realize that hate speech can be disseminated in many different ways nowadays, including the Internet. Hate speech online is propagated and amplified and its consequences are underestimated. Users think that when they disseminate hate speech, that they have some impunity and are protected through their anonymity. However, such thinking is inaccurate, as public authorities are also implementing the necessary measures to combat hate speech which is disseminated online. 

example The comments of individuals on an internet news portal which contain personal threats or offensive language directed against the persons mentioned in the news article.

Hate speech vs Freedom of expression

Hate speech is contrary to the basic values of a democratic society because it promotes intolerance, hate or violence against other people. The state has a duty to protect the rights and dignity of all people in society and maintain social peace. To do this, it must prevent hate speech, intolerance and discrimination. Therefore, the restriction of hate speech does not violate freedom of expression.

Misdemeanour and criminal offence

In most countries in the European Union, hate speech is a criminal offence which can be lawfully prevented or punished by the state. The Estonian Penal Code includes provision on prohibition of incitement to hatred. Activities which publicly incite to hatred, violence or discrimination against listed groups are punishable by a fine of up to three hundred fine units or by detention (misdemeanour). However, the provision also includes a condition restricting the scope of the article making incitement illegal only in cases where the victim’s health, life or property are at stake. 

If the act of incitement causes the death of a person or results in damage to health or other serious consequences; or it is committed by a person who has previously been punished by such act then the incitement of hatred is punishable by a pecuniary punishment or up to three years’ imprisonment (criminal offence).

In cases involving hate speech, it is not only the authors who can be found guilty. You can also be liable for the mere dissemination of hate speech if you endorse the message. For example, when offering a platform by publishing or broadcasting the message.

Read more about liability.


The victims of hate speech have a right to claim monetary compensation from the authors or disseminators of such expressions both during criminal proceedings and also by bringing a separate civil claim if their claims are not fully satisfied within the criminal proceedings. Read more about how to complain if you believe that you have been a victim of hate speech.

Human Rights Guide

A European platform for human rights education