March 18, 2015

The First Amendment Should Never Protect Hatred

Report This Article
What is the issue?
Google Pixel
via YouTube
via YouTube

One of the most admirable things about Europe is that most (if not all) of the right-wing rhetoric that you hear in the US is explicitly against the law there.  For example, attempting to link Islam with terrorism, saying that gay marriage isn’t really marriage, or saying that trans women aren’t really women would get you charged with discrimination and/or incitement to hatred.  Numerous European public figures have been charged with hate crimes for implying that large-scale immigration is connected to higher crime.  In fact, a politician in Sweden was prosecuted for hate crimes for posting statistics about immigrant crime on Facebook.  Assaults on the human dignity of Muslims are simply not tolerated in Europe, and Europe cracks down hard on any attempts to incite hatred against Muslims.  In a notable example, a woman in Austria was convicted of a hate crime for suggesting that the Islamic Prophet Muhammed was a pedophile.  Recently, a man in Sweden was charged with incitement to ethnic hatred for wearing a T-shirt saying “Islam is the devil.”  Nobody in Europe believes that these laws interfere with their sacred, guaranteed right to freedom of speech.  Rather, these laws protect freedom of speech by ensuring that it is used responsibly and for the purposes of good.

In the US, however, no such laws exist.  Right-wing hatemongers like Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Bill Maher, and Sarah Palin (to name just a few) are allowed to freely incite hatred and violence, oppose human rights, and undermine progress with impunity.  When people like this are allowed to sway public opinion against the common good, it can have disastrous consequences.  Just ask the millions of people killed due to wars pushed by right-wingers, even though propaganda for war is illegal under international human rights law (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights mandates that all countries outlaw propaganda for war).

In the United States, hate speech is often spewed forth by people with a great deal of influence, thus making it even more dangerous.  Freedom of speech always comes with responsibility, and people in powerful positions need to have extra responsibilities.  Consider the case of Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson.  In a civilized country with basic human rights, Phil Robertson would have been taken before a government Human Rights Tribunal or Human Rights Commission and given a fine or prison sentence for the hateful and bigoted comments that he made about LGBT people.  In the US, however, he was given no legal punishment, even though his comments easily had the potential to incite acts of violence against LGBT people, who already face widespread violence in the deeply homophobic American society – and his comments probably DID incite acts of violence against LGBT people.

Most countries have freedom of speech, but only in the US is “freedom of speech” so restrictive and repressive.  Not only is the US the only country without any laws against hateful or offensive speech, but it’s also the only country where the government cannot ban any movies, books, or video games, no matter how dangerous, demeaning to human dignity, or harmful to society they may be.  The US government is also the only government that cannot ban any groups or political parties, even when those groups or political parties pose a serious threat to democracy.  This is completely incompatible with international human rights standards, which clearly state that freedom of speech does not protect speech which is harmful to society, to morality, or to human rights.  Countries like the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Australia – to name just a few examples – take a much more sensible approach to freedom of expression.  They allow legitimate freedom of expression while banning bigots, hatemongers, conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, pro-pedophile groups, terrorist sympathizers, harmful media, Holocaust deniers, pick-up artists, climate change deniers, and other forms of expression which damage society and social cohesion.

via YouTube

The United States has a very limited and very outdated understanding of human rights and political freedoms.  In all other countries, it is simply common knowledge that freedom of speech does not permit hatred or other human rights abuses.  This is not something that anyone outside of the US would ever question.  In the US, however, it’s a concept that seems to be utterly alien to the vast majority of the population.  The US appears completely backwards and positively uncivilized to the rest of the world when it refuses to crack down on manifestations of hatred.

While America has always been far behind the rest of the world when it comes to basic human rights – we still have yet to ban firearms, we still have yet to provide free higher education, and we still have yet to implement free universal healthcare, for example – the need to outlaw hate speech is one of the most basic and fundamental human rights obligations.  Not only is it codified in multiple international human rights conventions, but even countries like Russia, India, Turkey, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Jordan – countries that most Americans consider to be “third-world” – have laws against hate speech.  Why is the so-called “third-world” protecting basic human rights better than America is?

In Europe and Australia and the rest of the civilized world, the ultra-libertarian, free speech absolutist position is that not all offensive speech should be illegal, but that incitement to hatred should always be illegal.  There is absolutely nobody outside of the US who thinks that there shouldn’t be ANY laws against hate speech, racial vilification, or incitement to hatred.  That idea is just unthinkable in a society where basic human rights exist.  The US has a dismal record on human rights, as indicated by the fact that it still doesn’t have universal healthcare, still carries out executions, still hasn’t banned firearms, and still tortures people, to name just a few things.  But having NO laws against incitement to hatred?  It’s just impossible for people in civilized countries in the year 2015 to even conceive of such a thing.  In fact, most people in civilized countries simply assume that the US outlaws hate speech, and they are left in stunned disbelief and disgust when they are told that it doesn’t.  Inevitably, they will ask: how can the US possibly call itself a free country and a democracy when it’s the only country in the world without any kind of laws against hate speech?  Protecting vulnerable minorities from hate speech is one of the cornerstones of any democratic society, and it’s one of the most basic and fundamental human rights obligations.  Do Americans have no idea how ironic it is for them to call their country “the land of the free” when it doesn’t have any kind of law against hate speech?

Before moving to the US to work with human rights organizations here, I grew up in Australia, which is a much more civilized and progressive country than the comparatively backwards United States, with a much deeper respect for basic human rights.  Any comment which may offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate vulnerable minorities is highly…