The Freedom Blog

By Kelsey Zorzi

The United Nations would, one might think, serve as a force for the protection of free speech globally. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), for example, declares that “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” At the UN today, however, practical support for such a strong and unqualified defense of free expression is disturbingly low. It is now common to affirm support for free speech while simultaneously pushing for restrictions on hate speech. Such a position—free speech is good but hate speech cannot be tolerated—is self-contradictory despite being commonplace.

The United Nations’ Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC)’s 2015 symposium entitled “Hate Speech in the Media” is illustrative. The purpose of the event was to encourage media to censor certain types of speech and media outlets that participated, including NPR, boasted of their extensive censorship of the public’s “offensive” comments on their websites. The speakers at the event, however, showed no interest providing a rigorous definition of hate speech, and seemed prepared to potentially deem as hateful any speech that any group found offensive. Moreover, the speakers repeatedly elided the distinction between speech that incites hate and speech that incites violence.

The position advanced by UNAOC’s symposium, a position that is becoming more and more common at the UN, is captured well in a 2011 article by Sheila Lalwani and Georgetown University’s John Esposito:

Freedom of speech is a precious right that must be guarded carefully. But what happens when that right is used to incite hatred and to feed religious intolerance, such as Islamophobia, that is spreading like a cancer across the United States and Europe? While some statements may not immediately be the direct cause of a specific act of violence, they spread seeds of intolerance and anger that lead to legitimizing and accepting acts of bigotry and hate.

The key move here is to equate incitement of hatred with incitement of violence because freedom of speech has never been thought to protect incitement of violence. But whereas violence can be straightforwardly understood to refer to physical injury to person or property, hatred is much harder to pin down. And, as the French theorist Alexis de Tocqueville observed, “An abstract word is like a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved.” The determination of what counts as hatred will inevitably be arbitrary since it depends on both emotional responses and power. No set definition of hate speech is possible. Instead, speech is considered hate speech whenever an offended person or group has the will and power to get legal penalties enforced against the offending party. The potential abuse and absurdity of hate speech laws can be seen throughout Europe where, for example, in Denmark, insulting the flag of the United Nations constitutes a criminal offense subject to two years’ imprisonment. Hate speech laws, then, end up being tools for silencing unpopular viewpoints. Incidentally, unpopular viewpoints are really the only things free speech laws ever needed to protect.

An international survey conducted in 2015 suggests just how tepid worldwide support for free speech has become. The study found that a majority in nearly all 38 countries polled viewed freedom of speech as an important freedom for their society, and, across the whole survey, a median of 50% or more viewed freedom of speech as “very important.” Support for freedom of speech was greatest in the United States, with countries in Latin America and countries in Europe coming in second and third place, respectively. Respondents in Middle Eastern countries voiced the least amount of support free speech. However, many of the same respondents that claimed free speech to be important were in favor of restrictions on offensive speech. Alarmingly, a global median of 65% support government restrictions on speech that is “offensive to religion or beliefs” as well as speech that is “offensive to minority groups.”


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