The Danger of Losing American Free Speech

It may come as a surprise to many people that the history of hate speech laws is that they originated with communist governments.

There is also no good rationale for hate speech laws. There are two main justifications: 1) Hostile speech leads to physical violence, and 2) hostile speech results in psychological harm. In the first justification, it is held that violence must be stopped before it happens by suppressing speech that will cause violence. Coleman said that this has not proved effective. Weimar Germany had restrictions on hostile speech, he observed, and yet it did not prevent the rise of Nazism.

 

The subversion of freedom in the name of freedom is part and parcel of the behavior of the Left; seen in the claim that leftist movements are about “liberation,” in the official names of communist countries (i.e., German Democratic Republic, People’s Republic of China, etc.) that assert that they are truly free in contrast to ‘bourgeois democracy,” and in the dismissal of opposition as a form of aggression and violence (“anti-Soviet,” or “imperialist” now replaced by “racist,” “xenophobic,” “anti-gay”). The collapse of communism and the conservative ascendancy of the late twentieth century were surely a staggering and unexpected blow to the Left; it has now recovered with the difference that on the “social issues” (sex, family, and religion) it has taken control of the western establishment (business, academia, entertainment and the courts). Freedom of religion (the most important issue of the Cold War, and a core reason for America’s existence) has suffered badly. But America has been spared, as Europe has not, in another area of leftist subversion, namely, free speech.

But this could change, and a warning of the possibilities of change was offered by Paul Coleman, Deputy Director of the Alliance Defending Freedom International, who discussed the effective censorship of conservative ideas in Europe due to hate speech laws at a presentation at the Heritage Foundation on August 2. In introducing Coleman, Ryan Anderson, Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, began by mentioning that under current German law “an insult is a criminal offense, in Poland ‘offending religious feelings’ carries a two year prison sentence, in Cyprus, anyone who promotes ‘feelings of ill will’ may be committing a crime, while in Sweden, anyone who expresses ‘contempt’ toward a group of people may be imprisoned.” Censorship extends to the religious pronouncements of clergymen, the reporting of journalists, and even private conservations. Whether or not accused persons are finally vindicated “the culture they create of intimidation, silence, and censorship is what reigns supreme.”

Coleman discussed “the top five problems” he sees with hate speech laws. These are the difficulty in giving hate speech an objective meaning, the communist origin of the concept, the practical results of hate speech laws, the justifications given for the laws, and the trajectory of the law with respect to the hate speech concept.

First, there is a “definitional problem.” While it may be said that the distinguishing characteristic of hate speech laws is that they make hostility, independent of truth or sincerity, the key factor in deciding the legality of speech, it is nevertheless “very difficult to define what hate speech is.” The European Union says “hate speech is ‘hateful speech.’” “Insult, offense, indignity, hostility” are all terms used. Thus, Coleman claimed, hate speech is “incredibly subjective … If you perceive something to be hate speech, then that perception can in many cases become a reality.” The understanding of illegal hostility is also “fluid.” It “burdens” every citizen “to keep up with the trends.” A typical hate speech law was cited, in which any verbal or non-verbal expression hurting religious feelings is a crime punishable by one year imprisonment.

It may come as a surprise to many people that the history of hate speech laws is that they originated with communist governments. During the twentieth century, communist governments pressed for hate speech provisions in international agreements. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is largely free of hate speech doctrine, Coleman noted, a very solid document for liberal democracy, and one which could not be passed by international political bodies today. But subsequent agreements, such as International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1976), and the International Convention on the Eradication of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969) showed significant communist influence. The irony is that these documents are supposed to be “limiting the power of the state,” but in fact increase it to the extent that they incorporate hate speech doctrine. While the United States signed the treaties, it made reservations against hate speech provisions. In Europe, however, the hate speech provisions were accepted and implemented into law.

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