It’s Time To Bring The Hammer Down On Hate Speech In The U.S.

via Flickr - T
via Flickr – T

Recent scandals involving right-wing hatemongers like Phil Robertson, Donald Sterling, Bill Maher, and the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity have brought to light one of America’s biggest embarrassments: the fact that America remains the only country in the world without any legal protections against hate speech. In any other country, people like Phil Robertson and Donald Sterling would have been taken before a Human Rights Commission and subsequently fined and/or imprisoned and/or stripped of their right to public comment for making comments that incite hatred and violence against vulnerable minorities. But, in the US, such people are allowed to freely incite hatred and violence against vulnerable minorities with impunity, as the US lacks any legal protections against any forms of hate speech – even the most vile and extreme forms of hate speech remain completely legal in the so-called “land of the free”. Not only is this a violation of the most basic and fundamental human rights principles, but it’s also an explicit violation of legally-binding international human rights conventions.

For many decades, human rights groups around the world – from Amnesty International to Human Rights First to the United Nations Human Rights Council – have told the United States that it needs to pass and enforce strong legal protections against hate speech in accordance with its international human rights obligations. As of 2015, the US is the only country in the world where hate speech remains completely legal. This is, in fact, a flagrant violation of international human rights law. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) both mandate that all countries outlaw hate speech, including “propaganda for war” and the dissemination of any “ideas based on racial superiority or hatred”. The ICCPR and ICERD are both legally-binding international human rights conventions, and all nations are required to uphold them in the fullest. By failing to prosecute hate speech, the US is explicitly and flippantly violating international human rights law. No other country would be allowed to get away with this, so why would the US? The United Nations has stated many times that international law has absolute authority. This is quite simply not optional. The US is required to outlaw hate speech. No other country would be able to get away with blatantly ignoring international human rights standards, so why should the US be able to? The US is every bit as required to follow international human rights law as the rest of the world is.

I have always been a major champion of the unalienable right to freedom of speech. Freedom of speech is the bedrock of any democratic society, and freedom of speech must be upheld to the maximum possible extent. However, like all democratic rights, the right to freedom of speech comes with responsibility, and freedom of speech has to be balanced against other freedoms. In the words of Irwin Cotler, who is perhaps the single most prominent human rights activist in Canada: “Freedom of expression is the lifeblood of democracy. However, hate speech is not simply a matter of offending sensibilities or being politically incorrect. It causes real and tangible harm, can assault the very values underlying free speech, can breach our international commitments, and can assault the principle of equality.” In all other countries, it’s simply common sense that freedom of speech doesn’t protect hate speech. It’s not something that’s even up for debate. Everyone learns in school that hate speech is not free speech, and nobody would ever question this. Just like freedom of speech doesn’t protect death threats, freedom of speech also doesn’t protect hate speech. In civilized countries, this is something that everyone agrees on, regardless of political ideology – even hardcore libertarians agree that hate speech is unacceptable. In my native Australia, the need to protect vulnerable minorities from hate speech is one of the most universally accepted values, and anyone who even dares to question hate speech laws will receive an extremely hostile reaction. There isn’t a single person in Australia who thinks that there should be absolutely no legal protections against hate speech. If anyone ever went to Australia and said that there should be absolutely no legal protections against hate speech, they would be physically attacked and told to leave the country for their own safety. No, I’m not exaggerating in the least. Australia has ZERO tolerance for anyone who attacks the basic human rights of vulnerable minorities. For people in more civilized and enlightened countries where people have basic human rights, it’s just absolutely unfathomable to even consider having absolutely no legal protections against hate speech. It would be like having no laws against child abuse, or having no laws against murder.

American society is a deeply racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, patriarchal, Islamophobic, and anti-human rights society. Racism infects every single area of American society, but it infects the highly corrupt American government most of all. The American government is a profoundly racist government where, despite the presence of Barack Obama, the vast majority of people with the most power are privileged white men. As Australian Muslim activist Waleed Aly has pointed out, one of the biggest reasons why strong legal protections against hate speech are so necessary is because there is a strong hierarchy of power and privilege in Western society, with whites firmly at the top, holding the most power and privilege by far. It’s easy for privileged white men to say that hate speech is perfectly acceptable and doesn’t harm anyone, but privileged white men have never been victims of hate speech and they could never understand the devastating effect that hate speech has on vulnerable and marginalized minorities. Hate speech is itself a form of censorship, as it silences the voices of the most oppressed and disenfranchised minority groups – groups that are already denied a voice in society. The racist government of the United States certainly does not allow minorities to have a voice, as, like all Western governments, the US government is run by privileged white men who, quite frankly, couldn’t care less about the basic human rights of vulnerable minorities.

Perhaps the biggest piece of evidence that the US government is a profoundly racist government is the fact that it has yet to pass any legal protections against hate speech. To quote the prominent Australian Muslim human rights activist Mariam Veiszadeh: “As with any democratic right, freedom of speech should be tempered with responsibility and it is counter productive if those who continously spew hateful and misleading vitriol are the very individuals who continue to thrive from the protection that freedom of speech offers. We should be very afraid when our top law maker seems more passionate about protecting the rights of bigots than the rights of the most marginalised members of our society.” Like Waleed Aly, Mariam Veiszadeh understands that one of the main reasons why legal protections against hate speech are so essential is because Western societies and Western governments are so deeply racist. Americans should indeed be very frightened of their government, which apparently considers “the right to be a bigot” to be more important than the basic human rights of the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. What kind of government considers racism to be a human right, but not freedom from racism? Certainly not a government that actually values true human rights and freedoms, and most definitely not a government that cares about protecting vulnerable minorities. Whether it’s torturing people, carrying out executions, drone-bombing innocent civilians, supporting Israeli apartheid in Palestine, attacking journalists and whistleblowers, or persecuting African-Americans and Muslims within its own borders, the US government is a deeply racist and deeply immoral government in every sense of the world – just ask the African-Americans that the United States government routinely targets with police brutality and disproportionately incarcerates, often for much lesser charges than whites. There is an endless amount of evidence showing just how deeply-entrenched racism is in the United States government. The fact that the American government refuses to outlaw hate speech is simply another perfect example of just how deeply racist, corrupt, heartless, and anti-human rights the American government is. In fact, hate speech is often put out by the US government – particularly hate speech against Muslims, which no doubt plays a large role in inciting acts of physical violence against vulnerable Muslim-Americans, such as the recent Chapel Hill shooting.

As children, when we say something rude, hateful, or disrespectful, an adult “sets us straight” and punishes us. When we would say something hurtful as a child, an adult would put on the moral path and tell us things like “if you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” Why, when we become adults, do we suddenly get to conveniently “change the rules”? Does it suddenly become acceptable to maliciously attack others just because we’re adults? I certainly don’t think so, and neither does any country except for the United States. The US is the only country that values the so-called “right” to be hateful and malicious more than it values basic human rights, human dignity, respect, politeness, tolerance, sensitivity, decency, safety, and civility. The fact that America still has absolutely no legal protections against racial hatred or any other form of bigotry in the year 2015 is nothing short of absolutely shameful. While America has always been far behind the rest of the developed world in terms of basic human rights and freedoms, the need to protect vulnerable minorities from hate speech is one of the most basic and fundamental human rights necessities. Even third-world nations have legal protections against hate speech. The US is the sole anomaly in the world, and this is even more unacceptable when one considers how diverse and multicultural the US is. Not to mention, when it comes to protecting legitimate freedom of speech, the US has consistently failed. The US denied African-Americans in Ferguson their right to peacefully protest against police racism, and numerous people in the US (Steven Salaita, for example) have been fired from their jobs for speaking out against Israel’s ongoing genocide against Palestinians. Another excellent example of America’s total disregard for true freedom of speech: the so-called “anti-terrorism” legislation in the US is among the most draconian in the world, and America’s “anti-terrorism” legislation is specifically intended to target innocent Muslims – thus preventing Muslim-Americans from speaking out against racism. This is a perfect example of just how deeply racist the US is. The US will protect racist bigots’ so-called “right” to spew hatred and vitriol at vulnerable minorities, but it won’t protect those vulnerable minorities’ right to protest against the racism that they encounter every single day of their lives. This absolutely embodies just how racist and just how backwards American society and the American government truly are.

Before moving to the US to work with human rights organizations here, I grew up in Australia, where I also worked as a human rights activist (in Australia, I worked for Amnesty International Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, the Human Rights Working Group of the Greens NSW, and the NSW Council for Civil Liberties). Like all civilized countries, Australia has numerous laws against hate speech, and these laws are universally supported by every single facet of Australian society (although journalists, ethnic and religious leaders, and human rights activists are the biggest supporters of Australia’s hate speech laws). Australia has even proposed human rights legislation called the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, which declares people automatically guilty of offending or insulting other people unless they can prove their innocence in a court of law. This may sound extreme to Americans, but most Australian progressives and human rights activists actually complained that the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill didn’t go nearly far enough. Proposed during the more progressive Julia Gillard administration, the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill had very widespread support, and it came very close to passing. It is believed that, if progressives win the next Australian elections, then the Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill – along with other proposed human rights legislation – will be revived. But, while civilized countries like Australia continue to pass stronger and stronger legal protections against hate speech, the United States still has absolutely no legal protections against hate speech whatsoever, which means that people like Donald Sterling, Phil Robertston, Bill Maher, and so forth are allowed to spew hatred at the most vulnerable and marginalized groups without ever having to face any kind of legal punishment. To people in a more civilized, human rights-oriented society like Australia, it’s just absolutely unfathomable how anyone could think that such toxic, backwards hatred has any place in society. Every single time that America fails to press charges against hatemongers, it does a massive deal of damage to its international image and reputation. It sends the message to the rest of the world that America supports racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, hatred, and bigotry. Is that really what America wants to be known for? As the only country in the world where hatred and bigotry are considered acceptable? What kind of country actually considers the so-called “right” to racially vilify vulnerable minorities to be more important than the basic human rights of said minorities? Certainly not a civilized country – that’s for sure.

I speak for all Australians and all civilized people when I say that hate speech is most assuredly not free speech. America is the only nation that fails to make the necessary distinction between free speech and hate speech, and this does a great deal of damage to America’s international image. After all, the US considers the rights of hateful racists to be more important than the basic human rights of vulnerable and marginalized minorities. What kind of message does that send to the rest of the world? The fact that the US does not prosecute people for racism and hatred is completely unacceptable and downright disgusting to people in more progressive countries. For example, when the US failed to press charges against Donald Sterling for his racist hate speech, almost everyone in Australia was outraged, and human rights activists used it as an example of how the US is a backwards, anti-human rights culture that Australia should never seek to emulate (Tim Soutphommasane of the Australian Human Rights Commission used the Donald Sterling affair as an example of why Australia needs to retain its strong laws against all forms of offensive speech, and the vast majority of Australians agreed). Australians had a similar reaction when the US failed to charge Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson for the vilification of LGBT people, with many Australian human rights groups and LGBT rights groups holding up Robertson’s lack of prosecution as an example of how backwards and uncivilized the US is. In Australia, the UK, and any other civilized society, both Donald Sterling and Phil Robertson would have been taken before a Human Rights Commission and given a hefty fine or prison sentence for incitement to hatred.

Diversity is America’s greatest strength and multiculturalism is America’s greatest success story. But, for far too many people in America, racial vilification remains a sad reality. Vulnerable minorities in America continue to be oppressed and disenfranchised by society, by the media, by corporations, and by the government – and the fact that said minorities have no legal protections against hate speech is a perfect example of just how oppressed and disenfranchised they truly are in the US. America will never be up to international human rights standards until it makes protecting the basic human dignity of its citizens – and especially its vulnerable minorities – a top priority. Respect for America’s diverse people is something that’s worth protecting and promoting. All countries have an obligation to stand up against hatred, and bigotry has absolutely no place in a modern democracy. Allowing the unfettered expression of bigoted and discriminatory views is not something that any civilized society would ever do. By allowing hate speech, the United States is sending the message that it’s acceptable to racially vilify people and to justify it under the guise of “free speech”. This cannot continue indefinitely. Hate speech is a form of violence against oppressed and disenfranchised groups which can be even more damaging than physical violence, and hate speech also leads directly to physical acts of violence – and even genocide – against vulnerable minorities. History has repeatedly shown that, when hatred is sanctioned by people in power (as the US continues to sanction hatred), it leads directly to violence and even genocide. The Holocaust started with hate speech, and so did every other genocide in history. Germany learned the hard way what happens when you allow hatred to flourish, and so did Rwanda. Hatred is never acceptable, and it’s time for the US to finally follow the rest of the civilized world and pass strong legal protections against all forms of hate speech. Legal protections against hate speech – along with a press regulation and licensing scheme – are extremely important in order to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society from hatred, and in order to prevent right-wing media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart from promoting hatred and manipulating public opinion against the common good (in more civilized and progressive countries, these right-wing so-called “news” outlets would be shut down for inciting hatred and violence, being unbalanced, and providing misleading and untrue information).

For an example of the approach that America should seek to emulate, the US should again look towards Australia. As a culture based on fundamental human rights, Australia allows genuine freedom of speech, but bans right-wing hatemongers, Holocaust deniers, vaccine deniers, bigots, trolls, bullies, harmful media (including violent video games), terrorism sympathizers, pick-up artists (and all other forms of rape culture), and anyone who attempts to argue against the common good (Australia is also starting to crack down on climate change deniers as well). In order to prevent right-wing hatemongers from gaining too much influence, Australia also regulates who can own media outlets, and all media outlets in Australia are strictly regulated to ensure that they are fair, balanced, civil, responsible, accurate, and truthful. During the more progressive Julia Gillard administration, Australia attempted to set up a system (under the Finkelstein Inquiry) where all blogs and media outlets (including online ones) must register with the government for licensing, and any public commenters must be licensed by a progressive peer-review panel of media professionals before they can be allowed to comment publicly (Australian progressives plan to bring back this system when they win the next election). Australian journalists have always been the biggest supporters of press licensing legislation like the Finkelstein Inquiry, because the press licensing is intended to shut down right-wing “journalism” outlets while protecting real journalism. When right-wing hatemongers like Rupert Murdoch are allowed to pass their hate off as “journalism”, it can be very misleading and harmful to a general public that isn’t mentally equipped to separate real journalism from right-wing lies. Everyone has the right to accurate information, and nobody has the right to spread lies and hatred as “journalism” and “news”. In the UK, meanwhile, progressives and human rights activists are working to set up the Leveson Inquiry, which will enact a government press licensing scheme in order to shut down right-wing “news” outlets (particularly those owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns Fox News) which peddle hatred and propaganda, undermine progress, and manipulate public opinion against the common good. Again, journalists in the UK have been the biggest supporters of the Leveson Inquiry, because it’s intended to shut down right-wing propaganda outlets while protecting real journalism. The right to accurate and truthful information is a human right. This is something that all Australian and British journalists (aside from right-wing so-called “journalists”) understand. Why is it something that American journalists don’t seem to understand? America needs to join the civilized world and not only outlaw hate speech, but also shut down the hate media, which includes hate propaganda outlets like Fox News along with shock jocks like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity. Such hate masquerading as “news” has absolutely no place in a civilized society.

Laws exist to enforce acceptable behavior. It’s illegal to rob a bank, it’s illegal to rape women, and it’s illegal to kill people. Civilized countries like Australia outlaw hate speech for the exact same reason that they outlaw things like rape and murder – because hatred is unacceptable, just like rape and murder are unacceptable. Having a “freedom” to racially vilify ethnic minorities is no different than having a “freedom” to rape or kill. Hate speech is not “freedom” to its victims, just like rape and murder are not “freedom” to their victims either. Freedoms have to be balanced against each other, and freedoms have to be curtailed when they interfere with other freedoms (such as freedom from racial vilification, or freedom from murder). The US is the only country that doesn’t seem to understand these very basic human rights principles. Compared to more civilized and progressive countries, America simply has no moral compass, and America’s lack of legal protections against hate speech is a perfect example of this. In more enlightened countries, the US is often held up as an example of what a backwards and reactionary nation with no sense of human rights looks like. Is that really what America wants the rest of the world to see them as? If not, then it’s time for Americans to get serious about protecting fundamental human rights. It’s time for Americans to take a stand against hatred and bigotry and take a stand for respect and civility. In more civilized countries like Australia and the United Kingdom, it’s simply common sense that freedom of speech does not protect speech which is offensive, insulting, hateful, hurtful, misleading, untrue, dangerous, insensitive, oppressive, unacceptable to the majority of people, harmful to society, demeaning to human dignity, and/or contrary to community standards. This is not even something that’s even up for debate; it’s just something that everyone instinctively knows and accepts. Racism has no place in society. Neither do fascism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-feminism, totalitarian ideologies, anti-human rights ideologies, or any other forms of right-wing hatred. Freedom of speech does NOT give anyone the right to promote ideas which have no place in society. This is a very basic and very widely-accepted human rights principle, and only the US seems to struggle with it.

One of the most fundamental goals of the Australian progressive movement is ensuring that anyone who voices un-progressive ideas is aggressively prosecuted, and this is something that all Australian progressives firmly agree with. But, in the US, “progressives” actually believe that hate speech and even severe racial vilification should be protected as “free speech”. In fact, even minorities in the US still tend to oppose anti-hate speech laws which are designed to protect them. I recently had an African-American tell me that it was “ridiculous” to prosecute people for making racist comments. Vulnerable minorities in the US really don’t seem to understand the harmful effects that hate speech has on them and the very real danger that it places them in. To people from more civilized countries like Australia, it’s just terribly sad to see how brainwashed the people of America have become. Americans have been conned into thinking that freedom of speech means the freedom to say anything (especially if you have money). Americans completely misunderstand what freedom of speech is, and they totally fail to make the necessary distinction between freedom of speech and hate speech. Americans genuinely believe that freedom of speech gives people the right to spew hatred, racially vilify vulnerable minorities, argue against the common good, and oppose human rights. Most disgustingly, they actually believe that hate speech is “freedom”. Do Americans have any idea how profoundly backwards this makes them look to people in more enlightened and progressive countries?

Like all democratic rights, the right to freedom of speech comes with significant responsibility and has to be balanced against other rights. Nobody has the right to spread lies, falsehoods, or misleading information. The right to accurate information – and the right to be fully informed – are needed in order to fulfill democratic duty, and spreading misinformation can be very dangerous (just ask the countless people who have died thanks to anti-vaccine propaganda, or the countless people who have died thanks to the gun lobby’s propaganda in the US). This is perfectly consistent with libertarian principles, as withholding information or spreading misinformation manipulates free choices and therefore subverts liberty. As any human rights lawyer could explain, the human right to freedom of speech must be balanced against other human rights, including the human rights to protection from vilification, libel, slander, propaganda, misleading information, incitement, insult, offense, hatred, discrimination, and so forth. Freedom of speech is also never a license to oppose human rights. You cannot oppose racial equality, you cannot support Israel’s oppression of Palestinians, you cannot oppose marriage equality, you cannot support laws that curtail civil liberties, you cannot oppose a woman’s right to have an abortion, you cannot support inhumane treatment of refugees, you cannot oppose liberal democracy, and you cannot support the death penalty, to name just a few things. A society based on fundamental human rights has absolutely no place for anyone who opposes these fundamental human rights. In more civilized and progressive countries like Australia and the UK, this is simply common sense.

It’s up to everyone to create a safe, civil, polite, tolerant, inclusive, and respectful society, and allowing the unfettered expression of hate speech most certainly does not help to achieve those goals – quite the opposite, in fact. Hate speech tears society apart, incites acts of physical violence and genocide, and has a devastating affect on the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. Hate speech has absolutely no place in a tolerant and civilized multicultural society, and hate speech certainly has no place a society that claims to be a bastion of freedom and democracy. The United States was supposedly founded on the principles of freedom, democracy, and equality, but, by refusing to take a stand against hate speech, the US is completely betraying these core values. Hate speech goes against absolutely everything that the United States Constitution stands for. What America needs more than anything is to pass a Human Rights Act outlawing all forms of hate speech (whether the hate speech was said in public or in private), and to set up Human Rights Commissions in each state to allow victims of hate speech to seek legal justice. This is something that all civilized nations have already done. Nobody has the right to vilify other people, and nobody has the right to promote hatred and intolerance. Since hate speech is completely different from freedom of speech, passing legislation to outlaw hate speech should not be seen as interfering with First Amendment rights in any way. We are not talking about censorship here, and we’re not talking about curtailing freedom of speech. We are talking about cracking down on hate speech and protecting fundamental human rights.

It’s time for the US government to stop persecuting African-Americans, Muslims, LGBT people, and other vulnerable minorities, and start actually protecting them from all manifestations of hatred. The current laws of the US are easily some of the whitest pieces of legislation in existence. They positively ooze white privilege out of every single word, and they completely fail to take the significant vulnerability of certain groups into account. Not only that, but the current laws of the US also completely ignore basic human rights principles along with totally ignoring and flat-out defying international human rights law. This is completely unacceptable for any country, let alone for an advanced democracy. Unless America wants to continue being seen as a backwards, reactionary laughingstock, then it needs to finally bring itself up to date on its basic human rights obligations, and it can start doing that by implementing strong legal protections against all forms of hate speech in accordance with international human rights law. It’s time to vigorously protect true freedom of speech while aggressively cracking down on all manifestations of hate speech. It’s time to stop allowing right-wing bigots and hatemongers to hide behind “freedom of speech”. It’s time to stop allowing “freedom of speech” to be a shelter for hatred and intolerance. It’s time to start protecting basic human rights and human dignity. It’s time to take a stand against hate, and it’s time to take a stand for respect. It’s time to bring the hammer down on hate speech in the US. The time to start doing that is right now. TC mark

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