Hate speech is free speech
Jonathan Haidt, Peter Tatchell and others stand up for free thought.
‘The internet is a place for free speech, not hate speech.’ So said Vera Jourová, the EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality, as she unveiled a new EU code to tackle illegal ‘hate speech’ on the internet. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Microsoft have all lined up with the EU to remove hate speech from the web, with a particular focus on racism and xenophobia.
Jourová’s claim that hate speech doesn’t qualify as free speech echoes the rallying cry of today’s agitators for more controls on what they view as wicked speech. ‘Hate speech is not free speech’, they say. Isn’t it, though? If we are serious about freedom of speech, and about trusting people to make up their own minds about what they hear, shouldn’t even the foulest speech enjoy freedom?
Here, ahead of spiked’s debate about hate speech in London next week, major players from the worlds of journalism, academia and law put the case against the EU’s new code, and for freedom for haters.
What the fuck is hate speech, exactly? Like another phony, malleable concept — obscenity — it is simply a political category that gives power to the powerful to pick and choose what lesser mortals are allowed to read, think, and discuss (in the US, obscenity law did keep Lady Chatterley’s Lover from being published for decades, so it did have that going for it). Beyond that, hate — like envy — is the planet’s greatest renewable energy source, motivating humans to live better, richer, freer lives (my grandparents didn’t leave Europe in the 1910s because they loved it). In the US, libel, which by definition is false, is already punishable by law. So are ‘fighting words’, and plots and actions to cause physical harm. Beyond that, let speech rip like Lear howling on the heath.
Nick is editor-in-chief of Reason.
Ira Glasser says…
How is ‘hate speech’ defined, and who decides which speech comes within the definition? Mostly, it’s not us. In the 1990s in America, black students favoured ‘hate speech’ bans because they thought it would ban racists from speaking on campuses. But the deciders were white. If the codes the black students wanted had been in force in the 1960s, their most frequent victim would have been Malcolm X. In England, Jewish students supported a ban on racist speech. Later, Zionist speakers were banned on the grounds that Zionism is a form of racism. Speech bans are like poison gas: seems like a good idea when you have your target in sight — but the wind shifts, and blows it back on us.
Ira is former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, now president of the board of directors of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Hate speech is the secular equivalent of blasphemy. Blasphemy targeted ‘evil speaking’, but in a non-religious world, censors don’t do morality. So hate speech is defined as prejudice directed at individuals or groups on the basis of their identity — be it racial, cultural or lifestyle. In our era of identity politics, criticism of a cultural practice can now be interpreted as an instance of ‘hatred’ towards a group. Criticise multi-sex toilets, for example, and you can be accused of hate speech: ‘transphobia’. The focus on bias is important. Since all human beings are biased at some level, hate speech must discriminate between sanctioned bias and prohibited bias; effectively between acceptable hate and unacceptable hate. This is why it is okay to mock Christians but not to ridicule Islam.
The prohibition of comments that are considered biased or hateful is an explicit denial of freedom of speech. A tolerant society does not censor speech; it allows its citizens to express their biases and hatred. From the standpoint of an enlightened democracy, the censoring of hate is a far worse evil than the expression of hate. Why? Because it prevents people from judging and evaluating for themselves how to respond to the views — however prejudiced — of their fellow citizens.
Frank is a sociologist and author, most recently of Power of Reading: From Socrates to Twitter.
Sarah Haider says…
Progress depends on our freedom to express dangerous ideas – a freedom which relies on a strict differentiation between speech and physical acts. Hate-speech policies blur this line; they categorise speech that offends as in itself a form of violence, thereby unwittingly justifying violence as a response to offensive speech. Where once speech was punishable if it insulted the dignity of God, now speech that insults the dignity of His followers can be censored. It is a modern blasphemy, grounded not in scripture, but in the shifting sands that are the feelings of individuals. Censoring hate speech merely pushes hate underground, where it lurks beneath the guise of civility: invisible but not obliterated, looming all the more powerful. Genuine crusaders against prejudice now have a shadow for an enemy: impossible to target, and thus impossible to dismantle.
Sarah is director of outreach at Ex-Muslims of North America.
Sometimes it’s good to be an American. Here mandatory civility crusaders are constrained by the First Amendment. Here a corporate media ban on ‘illegal hate speech’ would be meaningless since allegedly hateful speech is not illegal. Corporations, not bound by the Constitution, have the power to ban legal speech, but in an American court, hate speech is free speech. How could it not be? Hate speech is an imprecise, subjective concept. On campus, and in the larger culture, it can include ‘offensive’ jokes and unwelcome ideas. One person’s hate speech is often another person’s political opinion, however inelegantly or even viciously expressed. Claiming that bans on hate speech ‘ensure… free and democratic expression’ online, as campaigners for restraints on trolling now do, is a bit like characterising abortion bans as protective of reproductive choice.
Wendy is a lawyer and writer, and a former national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Mick Hume says…
A hard truth about free speech is that in a civilised society, if we are talking about vitriolic thoughts and words not violent deeds, then everybody must be free to hate what or who they choose. That means being free to hate, not just fascists or Nigel Farage, but Muslims or Christians, transsexuals or Scousers, bankers or Bono. For EU commissioners, UK cabinet ministers or judges to try to ban the right to hate should be seen as no less outrageous an interference in the liberty to think for ourselves than a tyrant trying to ban the right to love.
Mick is editor-at-large of spiked and author of Trigger Warning: Is the Fear of Being Offensive Killing Free Speech.
Freedom of speech is not about protecting Bambi and Little Mermaid’s right to speak; it means standing up for people’s freedom to have, and express, views we vehemently dislike. We should of course deplore hate speech, and respect the freedom of private companies to moderate their platforms. Nevertheless, hate-speech codes amount to creating thoughtcrimes; their arbitrariness inevitably restricts legitimate speech; and they assume stupidity: that people are not smart enough to hear hateful ideas and not be indoctrinated by them. Ultimately, we shouldn’t shut down hate speech, leaving it unchallenged; we should combat it with better ideas.
Matthew is a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs in Australia.
Nadine Strossen says…
‘Hate speech’ is not a legal term of art, but rather an epithet invoked by advocates of censoring a wide range of speech whose ideas they hate. We should certainly punish some speech that could be labelled ‘hateful’, but only if it directly causes certain concrete harms – for example, threats aimed at specific targets, which instil reasonable fear of violence. In contrast, we must not punish speech whose only harm is offending sensibilities of audience members. Such a ‘standard’ would imperil essentially any expression about important but sensitive topics, given the wonderful diversity of our global online community.
Nadine is a professor at the New York Law School and former president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
What constitutes hate speech is not defined. Hate is very subjective. What some sensitive souls condemn as hate, others would describe as legitimate critical, dissenting opinion. There is a danger that disagreeable, offensive views might fall foul of new codes against hate speech. Depending on how it is interpreted, free speech could easily be the loser.
Peter is a human-rights activist.
Claire Fox says…
‘Haters gonna hate’ has become the fashionable way of batting away any personal criticism, or indeed any serious critique of everything from architecture to films. Writing off opponents as haters, so that you can then just ignore them, is usually a precursor to dishing out today’s acceptable form of hate speech: labelling those you disagree with as bigots. JK Rowling has attacked ‘haters’ of Black Hermione as ‘racists’; director of the all-female Ghostbusters, Judd Apatow, has described his film’s ‘haters’ as ‘vile, misogynistic shits’. So call me out as a hater if you like, but when Vera Jourová, the EU commissioner for justice, consumers and gender equality (I hate that title), tells free-speech advocates not to worry because her new code of conduct is narrow, I get cross. Because I know that the code will actually give official endorsement to the cultural trend for closing down opportunities to hold each other to account by rebranding those we disagree with as ‘haters’ to be ignored.
Claire is director of the Institute of Ideas and author of I Find That Offensive.
The EU’s push to ban ‘hate speech’ on the internet is premised on the idea that we can fix social ills simply by preventing people from saying things that those in power disapprove of. The value of free expression is in the information it conveys, the thoughts it provokes, and the greater clarity about the world it provides. The value in free expression should not be measured through a bureaucratic balancing act. This process would weigh prevailing cultural norms against the often arbitrary opinions of those in power. The EU forgets what I call the ‘Iron Law of Freedom of Speech’: it is always valuable to know what people really think, especially when those ideas are troubling, dangerous, or heretical. We cannot protect ourselves from the world by committing to knowing less about it.
Greg is president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and author of Freedom from Speech.
Jonathan Haidt says…
Many people nowadays say: ‘Hate speech is not free speech!’
The phrase implies this conceptual relationship:
But in fact, when we look at the way ‘hate speech’ rules are applied in the real world, they are never limited to nasty racist rants. Hate-speech rules always creep and expand to cover any speech that is offensive to the ideological group that wants to control language. So what we end up with is this:
This is why hate-speech laws — including the new EU code — are illiberal. One side of the political spectrum arrogates to itself the right to decide what arguments are acceptable in the public domain. The other side’s arguments are to be shouted down and ‘No Platformed’, not just on college campuses, but now on the internet, too.
Jonathan is professor of ethical leadership at New York University and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.
As private corporations, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft certainly have the right to establish rules for speech on their platforms, including restrictions on ‘hate speech’. But the fact that they are signing on to a speech code created by a government bureaucracy should be worrisome to anyone who cares about freedom. This is particularly so because ‘hate speech’, contrary to what the code’s proponents claim, is far from a clear-cut term. It covers instigation of violence toward ethnic, racial, national or religious groups, but also incitement of ‘hatred’, which could mean many things. In Russia, hate-speech laws are routinely used to suppress controversial political speech. Even in Europe, they have been used in this way, for example against critics of oppressive practices in Islam. The social-media giants bill themselves as an open marketplace of ideas; such a marketplace does not thrive under hate-speech regulations.
Cathy is a journalist and author.
spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, will be speaking at our upcoming event on the rise of hate-speech laws, to mark the launch of the second edition of Paul Coleman’s book Censored: How European ‘Hate Speech’ Laws are Threatening Freedom of Speech. The event will be held on Wednesday 15 June, at the October Gallery in central London. For further information, and to reserve a place, please email Viv Regan.