Has Freedom to Debate Become Freedom to Hate in Europe?

The violent protests this month against an anti-Islamic video have highlighted the challenges posed by hate speech in the age of the internet. In Brussels last week, three prominent human rights defenders debated the question “Has freedom to debate become freedom to hate?” Aryeh Neier (president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations) Emma Bonino (Vice-President of the Italian Senate) and Nils Muižnieks (Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights) had different views on the role of law and politics on the knottiest problems, but agreed that the law cannot proscribe certain forms of expression.

Aryeh Neier pointed out that Europe’s problems may be partly rooted in its legal approach to hate speech. Europe has gone down the road of criminalizing forms of expression that denigrate a particular group in society. By contrast, in the U.S. punishment depends on whether there is an imminent risk of violence. Despite a history of deep racial tensions in the U.S., hate speech there is far less prevalent in political discourse and public spaces. There is no racist taunting of black sportsmen at American football games, whereas this is happening on playing fields in Europe. Neier argued that this is because the approach to racist speech in the U.S. has focused less on criminal sanctions and more on encouraging debate in a free market of ideas. As President Obama told the UN General Assembly this week: “The strongest weapon against hateful speech is not repression, it is more speech—the voices of tolerance that rally against bigotry and blasphemy, and lift up the values of understanding and mutual respect.”

Can Europe afford to rely on the voices of tolerance to challenge and discredit pedlars of xenophobia, given its history in the 20th century? Nils Muižnieks underlined that criminal sanctions remain an important deterrent and a sign of society’s disapproval of statements that can tear social fabric apart. Without punishment, these views will start to be seen as normal and acceptable. We are already seeing hate speech over the internet inspiring more extreme views in the younger generation.

There are many forms of expression—not only is language rich in its subtleties, but art forms like dance, theatre, comedy and film multiply the ways that people can express their views. It is impossible to regulate them all. Emma Bonino warned that this complexity meant that legislation has to leave a great degree of discretion to those who enforce it to decide on where the line has been crossed between legitimate free expression and impermissible hate speech. And wherever there is discretion, there is the risk of abuse because politicians in power are tempted to use laws against their political opponents. For Emma Bonino, Europe’s problem lies in the fact that mainstream political leaders have ignored rather than confronted racist rhetoric.  Worse still, parties occupying the center ground have given in to the temptation to adopt some of the rhetoric of the far right in the attempt to reclaim some of their disenchanted supporters.

Although the speakers were divided on the merits of the European versus the U.S. approaches, they were united in their vision of the future. The battle between the pedlars of racist hate speech and proponents of tolerance will be fought over the Internet. The moderates in this fight need to modernise and diversify their arsenal. Modernise, because the pace of technological change is outstripping states’ ability to regulate the Internet; for example, court orders to take down racist website content are ineffective when they can be hosted on sites in various jurisdictions. Diversify, because a criminal law deterrent can treat some of the symptoms without curing the disease. Instead, the role of schools in educating future generations to embrace, rather than fear, diversity needs to be taken seriously. Strong and regular condemnation of racism would be needed from political, cultural and business leaders. Plurality of media ownership and diversity in the voices speaking over the Internet is essential to ensure that there are alternative perspectives that promote tolerance and challenge racist ideology.

Everyone has a role to play in this, as parents, friends, colleagues, teachers, bloggers, voters, and consumers of the media. In words attributed to Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

Photos from this debate can be viewed here.

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