During a recent event discussing the origin and implementation of European hate-speech laws, lawyers argued that the “ill-conceived” laws pose a danger to free speech and often stifle constructive dialogue.
“While human rights provisions are meant to limit the reach of the state and empower citizens, hate speech laws do just the opposite – and that is why they are a tool of totalitarianism and not free democracies,” Alliance Defending Freedom’s legal advocate Paul Coleman stated in a July 4 speech.
Coleman’s discourse was part of a side-event during a July 3 – 4 Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (‘OSCE’) Supplementary Human Dimension Meeting, which took place at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna.
Referring to the side event’s title “’Hate Speech’ Laws in the OSCE Region: A Growing Threat to Freedom of Expression,” Coleman explained to CNA July 8 that the laws are not well defined, and therefore “are considered to be ill-conceived for several reasons.”
“The concept of ‘hate speech’ has no universally recognized understanding, as the European Court of Human Rights has said,” the lawyer noted, adding that because of this “hate speech laws are often over-extensive. They are loosely worded, employing malleable concepts such as ‘insult’ or ‘contempt.’”
“This allows them to be arbitrarily enforced by the police and tempts judges to make undemocratic value judgments when interpreting and applying the law,” he continued, observing that because the laws lack an “objective standard,” they focus more on how the listener feels and exclude “the truth of the statement.”
In his speech for the side event Coleman gave a brief history of hate-speech laws in Europe, detailing how they arose in the 1940s after the foundation of the United Nations. Following the U.N.’s formation it launched the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which included the right to free speech.
Recalling how there were some who argued that unbridled free speech would allow “hateful propaganda” to spread and so demanded limitations, the lawyer noted that the dominant voice in these objections came from “the communist led nations of the day: the former Soviet Union and her allies.”
“Of course, present day ‘hate speech’ laws cannot be rejected simply because they were first introduced through the concerted pressure of totalitarian regimes,” he clarified, “But this fact ought to at least arouse suspicion among modern day supporters of ‘hate speech’ laws.”
Naming several reasons why the present day laws should not be considered in the restriction of free speech, Coleman stated that first of all they “restrict the self-fulfillment of the individual.”
“The realization and fulfillment of one’s potential as a human being is an intrinsic human good,” he said, observing how the free exchange of thoughts and opinions “is essential for achieving this goal.”
“Hate speech laws restrict the attainment of truth,” he continued. “It is only by the collision of adverse opinions that truth has any chance of being supplied,” he affirmed, stating that the laws suppress this exchange.
Another reason the laws should not be considered is because they “greatly restrict free speech, without which there can be no discussion amongst an informed citizenry, and without discussion there is no democratic process.”
“This applies not just to ideas or speech that are popular or inoffensive, but also to words that may offend, shock or disturb.”
Noting how hate speech and insult laws “have a chilling effect that leads to self-censorship and the shutting down of dialogue,” Coleman explained that “Rather than promoting tolerance, hate speech laws can actually lead to even greater intolerance and marginalization by driving unpopular ideas underground where they are left unaddressed.”
Coleman observed how the laws can also lead to a withdrawal “of tolerance and free expression” among those who simply hold different viewpoints, particularly on the topics of marriage and religion.
“They have been used to fine or silence pastors for preaching in their churches, and café owners for displaying Bible verses on their store’s televisions,” he went on, citing a case from 2009 in which the owners of a Liverpool hotel were arrested after a guest complained to the police about a breakfast conversation in which they discussed their differing religious viewpoints.
Although the couple was eventually acquitted of the hate speech charges, the 20,000 Lira cost of the prosecution as well as the withdrawal of one of their largest clients after the investigation caused them to sell their business.
Citing a final reason why the laws are concerning, the lawyer stated that they “conceal deeper social issues” by diverting “public attention from the real causes of a crisis that affects society as a whole.”
“Seemingly irrational expressions of hate based on the status of a target can alert us to the fact that something is wrong in the body politic, and that change is needed,” he affirmed.
“These reasons should give pause and lend balance to historical and cultural defenses of hate speech law.”