How long can speech be free and where should we draw a line? Is there a difference between the incitement to hatred (as an emotion) and incitement to violence (as an act)? What does “potential” or “social” harm mean and who decides about it? What are the implications of so-called hate speech laws for religious freedom? These questions inevitably demand answers.
As with every freedom, there are certain risks that come with the freedom of speech. Someone can offend us or hurt the feelings of our loved ones. Difficult or harmful words might put an end to a beautiful relationship. Without a doubt, we should be kind towards the others and think before speaking, taking into account the circumstances and possible audience of our comments. Nevertheless, the question remains: should we invoke criminal law to stop expression which subjectively might be not likeable? Tolerance is a two-way street. The legal definition of hate speech does not exist and that creates space for strong judicial activism, not based on law or justice, but rather personal sympathies or worldview. Moreover, sometimes we observe a huge difference between the speaker’s intention and the perception of his message. It would be extremely unfair to punish, not even for words but for someone else’s feelings about these words.
The European Court of Human Rights in the case Handyside v. UK (1976) ruled that that freedom of expression includes the content which “offends, shocks or disturbs the State or any section of population”. The proposed restrictions on these rights must be “necessary” in the democratic society, not just “useful” or “desirable”. That conception, however, seems to belong to the past if we examine the current situation and take a look at examples in which individuals and organizations were banned from speaking, prosecuted, or punished even though their message was far from being offensive.
In April 2018, the mayor of Rome ordered the removal of a pro-life poster featuring an 11-week old unborn baby from a wall in the Vatican area which said: “You were like this at 11 weeks. All your organs were present. Your heart was already beating from the third week after conception. You were already sucking your thumb. And now you’re here because your mother did not abort you.” The poster was considered to violate “civil rights”. How can mere biological truth about the development of little human being violate civil rights? Where censorship prevails, no reasonable explanation is provided.
In December 2019, judge James Tayler ruled against Maya Forstater, a researcher and visiting fellow at the Centre for Global Development, who lost her job there because of the tweets opposing government proposals to reform the Gender Recognition Act, in which she said that “men cannot change into women”. That expression was deemed to be “offensive and exclusionary”, “absolutist” and “not worthy of respect in democratic society”.
In March 2020, the Finnish MP Päivi Räsänen faced police investigations. Her crimes were: sending a tweet questioning official sponsorship of the LGBT event “Pride 2019” by her church with the image of a bible text attached, and writing a pamphlet on human sexuality for a Christian foundation, published 16 years ago.
These examples represent just a few of many cases in which those exercising their freedom of speech were under attack even if the content of the message was not offensive. Dr John Wenke in his article Deciphering Hate Speech: How Coded Words Like ‘Family’ Breed Contempt in The Huffington Post, claims the use of the word “family” should be considered as hate speech if it is included in the name of organizations with which he does not agree. “Sometimes hate speech isn’t direct at all. It may even be a little bit involved. Consider, for example, how anti-LGBTQ organizations use the word “family.” First of all, it’s rather striking how many of these organizations have appropriated the word “family” as part of their name. Their use of the word “family” and the phrase “traditional family values” is itself a form of hate speech” – he writes. What are the propositions then? To hand out certificates to those who are allowed to use certain words and bans to others? I sincerely hope it will not happen.
However, if the censorship continues to take place or even increases, the future of democracy, pluralism and tolerance does not appear optimistic. Freedom of selected speech is not worth having. Because it is not freedom at all.