Recently, Debating Europe has been looking at the issue of freedom of speech in Europe. We’ve been discussing whether “hate speech” should be banned and whether it should be illegal to deny crimes against humanity such as the holocaust or crimes carried out by communist regimes. There are already several countries in Europe where both of these things are illegal, but there are also many countries that take a more liberal approach. Today, however, we’d like to look at freedom of speech online.
Many of you were critical of the idea of restricting freedom of speech. Mihail, for example, argued that banning a person from saying something abusive will not stop them from thinking it:
If you forbid freedom of speech this [means that people will just hate more]… Legalize everything. When people have enough, they will stop with the hate speech!
It’s worth pointing out that almost no society currently enjoys “total” freedom of speech. There are almost always legal limits when it comes to harassment, libel or incitement to violence, and most countries in Europe already prohibit hate speech to a greater or lesser extent. Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights sets out freedom of expression as a qualified right, which guarantees freedoms but also carries both “duties and responsibilities.”
The aim here is not to suppress people’s freedom of speech, but to ensure peaceful existence within a diverse society. By banning the Nazi salute, Germany didn’t violate freedom of speech. It sent a clear message to those who sympathise with the Nazi ideology [and] removed from them a platform from which they disseminated their harmful ideologies. There are some basic conditions that must exist before we can speak of democracy. Trying to ‘defend’ [freedom of speech] by allowing some to destroy the rights and dignity of others is nothing more than fundamentalist thinking.
In recent weeks, there has been an outcry in the UK over online rape threats sent to a female MP and bomb threats sent to female journalists via Twitter, as well as controversy following the deaths of several teenagers in the UK, US and Ireland, all apparently driven to suicide by cyber-bullying. Should it be easier to report abuse online, and should website owners be held accountable to a greater extent for policing the abuse that takes place on their websites?
Indeed, this is an issue that we have to consider on a daily basis at Debating Europe. Should we moderate our comments section more strictly? Where is the line drawn between a trolling and abusive comment, and legitimate debate? Do we get the balance about right? As always, let us know your thoughts below and we will take some of your comments to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.