Framing Hate: Moral Foundations, Party Cues, and (In)Tolerance of Offensive Speech


  • Grant M. Armstrong
  • Julie Wronski


One of the most controversial elements of political tolerance concerns support for hate speech. We argue that there are two factors that can reduce tolerance for hate speech: 1) moral foundations and 2) party cues. U.S. citizens’ tolerance of hate speech will be reduced when it is framed as a violation of a specific moral foundation, opposed by a political party, or when the morality violation is utilized by party elites. Using two survey experiments, we manipulated the target of hate speech (i.e. Muslims or the American flag), whether the speech violated a moral foundation (i.e. harm or loyalty), and which political party supported or opposed the hate speech in question. For flag burning, moral frames and party cues on their own reduced U.S. citizens’ tolerance relative to a non-political control, while moral frames and party cues were successful in reducing tolerance of anti-Muslim speech compared to a free speech appeal. Partisans were generally responsive to cues from the in-party. We also found instances of moral repackaging, where morally incongruent appeals from the in-party reduced tolerance of flag burning among Democrats. Among Republicans, harm morality decreased tolerance of anti-Muslim speech when invoked by the in-party, but increased tolerance when used by the out-party – an indication of the power of party cues to repackage moral arguments and to trigger backlash. These results provide a better understanding of what factors can affect tolerance for hate speech, providing political leaders and social justice advocates with a roadmap to alleviate this problem.