It’s very easy to say there should be ‘no limits’ to freedom of speech. However, most people would agree it should be illegal to publish a person’s address along with instructions on the best ways to rough them up. Almost all countries have laws against harassment, or incitement to commit crimes, as well as restrictions on libel or slanderous speech.
But where should the ‘red line’ be drawn? If hate speech legislation is overly-strict, can it impinge upon the right to freedom of expression? Who should decide where the limits lie, and what is acceptable?
So, where should the limits be set? We had a comment sent in by Leo arguing that the limits to freedom of speech should be restricted to explicit calls for physical violence and libel against other individuals.
To get a response, we spoke to Paul Coleman, Senior Legal Counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International. What would he say?
Broadly speaking, I would agree with Leo, and agree that there are of course always limitations on various different rights and freedoms that we enjoy in society. But we have to be very careful where we place those limits, and not regulate or prohibit speech too easily or quickly. So, if we want to have a standard for when restrictions or limitations should come in, then I think calls for incitement to imminent violence and unlawful acts should be where we put those limitations. But a racist comment in and of itself, while we would disagree with that comment and not want it said, we shouldn’t be invoking the criminal law to ban it.
For another perspective, we also spoke to Valentin Le Dily, Chief Legal Officer of the French anti-racism organisation SOS Racisme. How would he react?
Just because somebody is making racist comments or general hate speech without explicitly calling for physical attacks does not mean that their speech won’t lead to physical attacks. Incitement to racial hatred includes racist or anti-Semitic comments that create an atmosphere of general hate in a society. Because it’s that atmosphere of hatred that will lead to physical attacks and assaults in the street, even if the person that made the speech in the beginning didn’t intend violence, that’s what hatred leads to. And we have a lot of cases of that happening in Europe historically.
We also had a comment sent in by Diogo, arguing that “verbal abuse is not ‘just’ words [because] words can hurt as much as physical damage.”
To get a reaction, we asked Paul Coleman if he agreed that violence could be psychological as well as physical:
I think we have to be very careful before we decide that a harm has been committed, and psychological violence has occurred that can then be penalised within the criminal law. I know this is one of the arguments in favour of hate speech laws, but as soon as you start trying to regulate what can and can’t be said it then becomes incredibly difficult.
Can we then say that somebody who makes an offensive or insulting comment is breaking the law based not on what they’ve said but on the view of the person who has received the insult and had their feelings hurt? I think once we go down that route then we put the emphasis of the law onto the subjective feelings of the person who has been insulted or offended, and then we find ourselves in a very difficult area to regulate.
Finally, we had a comment sent in by Inês, who thinks that if we start limiting free speech now for the ‘right reasons’ we open up a precedent. She is concerned about what will happen in the future and who will decide what is acceptable to think and say. Are her concerns justified?
To get a response to Inês, we spoke to Bridget O’Loughlin, Campaign Coordinator of the No Hate Speech Movement for the Council of Europe. What would she say?
I think this is an extremely pertinent question, and it’s certainly one that many people have been grappling with for some time now… Clearly, you have to be very, very careful because repressive governments have been known to use issues like hate speech to shut down social media and websites without just cause… This is something we need to guard against, and is why we need to look to instruments like the European Convention on Human Rights, and the way it’s been interpreted by the European Court of Human Rights, which has a lot of jurisprudence, a lot of case law, on the limits to freedom of speech in terms of hate speech, or incitement to criminal action or racism, etc.
As soon as you’re speaking or writing in the public domain – be that speaking on a soap box in the street corner, or writing an article in a newspaper, or writing a blog which is sent out to millions of people on the internet – you’re in a public area and there have to be some limits on what you are or are not allowed to say… But, clearly, we also have to protect freedom of speech and not let this fight against hate speech be used as an excuse, which I think it is sometimes, to limit freedom of expression.
Where should the limits to freedom of speech be set? Should hate speech be banned? Can violence be psychological as well as physical? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!