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Speaking Freely on Hate Speech

Violent outbreaks throughout the Arab world in response to the American Innocence of Muslims trailer have underlined the extreme repercussions fostered by open discrimination and hate speech. For many Muslims, an apology was not enough, and demands that free speech legislation be more closely scrutinized internationally have surfaced, but can a universal policy be reached?

Freedom of speech is a foundational policy throughout the democratic world. It fosters public scrutiny and in America it has shaped the nation’s ideals of freedom and personal autonomy.

While hate speech legislation exists in a large number of nations worldwide, the legislation is, to many Muslims, unfairly upheld in international courts and serves to protect Jews more, and them less. Since  the concept of  hate speech is based partially on norms, it is often only subjectively discernible;  the ban on some acts of discrimination can be clearly justified, while others lie within a less distinctive parameter.

In an article for Slate Magazine, William Saletan makes a case for the instalment of international and unrestricted free speech in order to circumvent these grey areas. In his article, he summarises different international hate speech regulations and tries to establish the coherent decision-making process followed when judges are faced with alleged hate crimes.

Saletan describes a case in which Denis Leroy, a French cartoonist, published a drawing that represented the attack on the World Trade Centre underscored with a caption reading ”We have all dreamt of it…Hamas did it”. Leroy was sentenced for ”condoning terrorism” and fined. Upon referencing this example, Saletan questions the difference between this instance and the more recent publishing of a crude comic ridiculing Muslims that was also printed by a French newspaper, but has been excused as falling under the country’s free speech policies.

In inspecting these cases, Saletan questions how we can condemn Leroy’s cartoon but condone other drawings attacking Muslims – and furthermore a 14-minute long video on that same topic? The easiest way, he argues, it to get rid of all hate speech legislation. However, not every issue of hate speech is so hard to judge as those Saletan chooses to address.

Last week, German police officials requested the immediate and uncompromising shutdown of an illegal neo-Nazi Twitter account based in Hannover. The request was granted, and marks the first time Twitter has complied with government demands for censorship. Would Saletan argue that the strict ban on pro-Nazi propaganda and the country’s hate speech legislation are too exclusive and should therefore be lifted? Or would he furthermore argue that the ban in place serves to favour Jews over Muslims, and is therein a discriminatory law in itself? Probably not.

What I think is important to remember, and what Saletan seems to have largely dismissed, is the historical fragility that necessitates respect for past events by requiring legislation to honour mistakes made at an earlier time. Germany is a perfect example – of course their restrictions on free speech will include tough provisions on Anti-Semitic sacrilege. Since the burdens of Germany’s past are unique to the country, it is impossible to conduct a cross-national analysis of different hate speech legislation and draw any conclusions regarding a bias in the international sphere.

Questioning how we can condone The Innocence of Muslims while we prosecute a French cartoon artist is silly, since the events took place in different countries and under different legislation. As for the disparities in the handling of the French cartoon artist situation: that may just be a difference of the judge’s sense of humour, but also serves to point to the grey areas that go along with upholding hate speech legislation; sometimes, decision-making isn’t so clear. This is where Saletan’s point gets merit, however; America’s complete absence of hate speech legislation leaves little to question when making a decision – in America, free speech is free speech.

This, however, is again a reflection of history. From the birth of the Nation, freedom of speech has been promised to American citizens, who have come to see it as one of the foundational pillars of democracy, and have used its benefits in attacking Communism and other oppressive regimes. If the United States were to install a set of hate speech provisions…actually, no, that would never happen.

While the need for protecting certain groups of people from discrimination is inherently important in some nations, and historical instances of discrimination must be respected, limiting free speech, as Obama put it, “can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities”. What is important to remember is that even if the idea of hate speech legislation in order to protect minority groups seems favourable, there is hardly a universal consensus that can ever be drawn regarding the issue.

There is one universal provision that all should be able to agree upon, however: While disparities are doomed to exist, the subsequent violence can never be tolerated.

–  Valerie Weber


(Featured Image: Paternité by ISM-NC, Flickr, Creative Commons)


About Valerie Weber

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