Was Aruna Khilanani's Yale lecture hate speech? Internet says yes but the law doesn't think so

While race-related talks and lectures are contentious by nature, Khilanani’s was especially so

                            Was Aruna Khilanani's Yale lecture hate speech? Internet says yes but the law doesn't think so
Aruna Khilanani's Yale lecture has been called hate speech (Instagram/aruna_khilanani)

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT: Dr Aruna Khilanani is a Manhattan-based psychiatrist with over 16 years of experience in the medical field. Khilanani had academic fame but she came under the harsh glare of mainstream criticism after a virtual lecture she gave to medical students and faculty back in April after being invited by Yale School of Medicine's Child Study Center. Now, many are calling her lecture "hate speech".

The talk, titled “The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind,” was part of Grand Rounds, a weekly forum for faculty and staff members and others affiliated with Yale to learn about various aspects of mental health. In the online lecture, Khilanani described a “psychological dynamic that is on PTSD repeat,” in which people of color patiently explain racism to White people, who deny their attacks. When people of color then become angry, White people use that anger as “confirmation that we’re crazy or have emotional problems,” she said.


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While race-related talks and lectures are contentious by nature, Khilanani’s was especially so. “This is the cost of talking to White people at all. The cost of your own life, as they suck you dry. There are no good apples out there. White people make my blood boil,” she said. “I had fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any White person that got in my way, burying their body, and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step. Like I did the world a f***ing favor.”

She also spoke about the supposed futility of trying to talk directly to White people about race, calling it a “waste of our breath.” She said, “We are asking a demented, violent predator who thinks that they are a saint or a superhero to accept responsibility. It ain’t going to happen. They have five holes in their brain.”

Conservative political commentator and agent provocateur Bari Weiss, who used to be the op-ed staff editor and writer about culture and politics at The New York Times, published the contents of Khilanani’s lecture on her substack. Since then, it has caused a furor online. Khilanani has received a barrage of negative reviews on her private practice in the medical equivalents of Yelp. News website comments sections have become fertile grounds for a heated debate on what many have called a noxious diatribe in so many words. 


At the same time, on social media, allegations were made that what she said, especially referring to the parts involving her supposed fantasies of shooting White people, constituted hate speech. But what is hate speech? Quite simply, it is generally regarded as abusive or threatening speech or writing that expresses prejudice against a particular group, especially on the basis of race, religion, or sexual orientation.

So, does Khilanani’s speech qualify as hate speech?

“@aruna_khilanani Looks like you just ended your career. Everyone knows that shrinks are crazier than their patients, but your comment at Yale can be construed as hate speech &  making terroristic threats. Merely having a PHD does not give you a right to make such comments!” wrote an angry Twitter user. Another person wrote to the shrink on the social media site, “Your fantasies do not justify racial hate. You can immorally think it, which you will burn in hell soon. But it is illegal to spread your hate speech publicly. Go back to whatever country you came from, white people are here to stay.”

One person wrote, “This is hate speech that is somehow allowed not only by social media but by a Ivy League school #Yale. This woman @aruna_khilanani should be the patient & lose her license.” While another declared, “@aruna_khilanani You seems like such a nice, nasty  RACIST. What you said can be considered hate speech and you should be thrown in jail. You are the reason racism exists in this country.  Those same white people you want to kill paid for your career in academics. Go to Hell.”





Under the generally agreed-upon rules of what constitutes hate speech, it is difficult to judge if Khilanani’s comments meet the criteria. But it is worth noting that legally, she may be in the clear. As per Federal courts in the United States, freedom of speech includes, among other things, the right to “use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages”, and “engage in symbolic speech”. What it does not, however, consider protected speech, includes inciting “actions that would harm others”, and making or distributing “obscene materials.”

Profanity aside, it is hard to argue Khilanani’s speech was obscene. Also, in making sure to demarcate it as a fantasy, Khilanani’s talk on wanting to unload “a revolver into the head of any white person that got” in her way, clearly sidesteps actively inciting violence. 

There is no concise legal definition of hate speech in the United States. That makes things difficult. And while Americans happily continue to enjoy their First Amendment rights, there are also those who have argued against it. Richard Stengel, a former editor of Time, the author of ‘Information Wars’, and the former State Department undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, wrote an op-ed on this in 2019. 

In the piece, he argued that while First Amendment protects the “thought that we hate,” it should not “protect hateful speech that can cause violence by one group against another.” He noted, “In an age when everyone has a megaphone, that seems like a design flaw.”

He argued, “It is important to remember that our First Amendment doesn’t just protect the good guys; our foremost liberty also protects any bad actors who hide behind it to weaken our society,” adding that hate speech, in its generally agreed terms, “diminishes tolerance” and “enables discrimination”. This, per him, undermines the values that the First Amendment was designed to protect: fairness, due process, equality before the law.

Khilanani's words may be distasteful. But do they violate the law? The answer, in present circumstances, remains unclear. But it veers towards a "no".

Disclaimer : The views expressed in this article belong to the writer and are not necessarily shared by MEAWW.