Hate Speech Policy is a Juggling Act

Hate Speech was the topic of an open letter published by twenty-four UN human rights experts. Find out what they had to say.

In our last story, like just about everybody, I talked about Greta Thunberg’s speech at the UN General Assembly.  Following her got me to take an interest in what else was going on at the UN these days.  I happened to catch the Secretary General’s opening remarks.  He made a very moving speech.  At one point, he said, ““It is unacceptable in the 21st century for women and men to be persecuted because of their identity, belief or sexual orientation.”

That remark, among others, reminded me how important the UN is to our humanity.  What I want to write about today comes from the United Nations, but not from the grand podium of the General Assembly.  Instead, it comes from a group of 24 human rights experts with mandates from the UN.  Their work goes on mainly behind the scenes. They wrote an open letter together and released it to the media on Monday.

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There are those who, with good intentions, say that to protect human rights, we can’t accept any limitations on freedom of expression. 

The letter is about hate speech. I’ve gotten into arguments many times on this topic.  There are those who, with good intentions, say that to protect human rights, we can’t accept any limitations on freedom of expression.  Everyone should be able to say whatever they want with impunity.  In their minds, that’s how democracy works.

There’s a media personality here in Canada called Ezra Levant who has made it his business to take on various human rights commissions on this point. These folks argue that when Human Rights Commissions regulate hate speech, they actually violate human rights.


These human rights experts disagree. “We are alarmed by the recent increase in hateful messages and incitement to discrimination and hatred against migrants, minority groups and various ethnic groups, as well as the defenders of their rights, in numerous countries,” they write.

The experts don’t see curbing hate speech as a violation of human rights.

The experts don’t see curbing hate speech as a violation of human rights.  Instead, they “call on States to double their efforts to hold accountable those who have incited or perpetrated violence against migrants and other vulnerable groups.” They go on to say, “This is not a call for further restriction on freedom of expression, which is under attack worldwide; we call for just the opposite, the promotion of free expression.”

There’s always a tension between these ideas.  When we look back on history, it’s easy to see why.  On the one hand, whenever we have seen atrocities committed, we see racism and intolerance.  It only makes sense to try to keep these ideas from spreading.  On the other hand, the main reason that people with power get away with committing these atrocities is that they take away the right of the people to speak out against them.  So, which idea is right?

There’s a principle called the three-part test.

There’s a principle called the three-part test. It’s based on Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. To be considered a reasonable limit on free speech, a policy has to meet three criteria:

(a) it is provided by law;
(b) it pursues a legitimate aim; and
(c) it is necessary in a democratic society

The experts refer to this test in their letter when they write, “It is of crucial importance that States ensure that the three-part test for restrictions to freedom of expression – legality, proportionality and necessity –also applies to cases of incitement to hatred.” In other words, we need limits on freedom of expression, but there also have to be limits on those limits.

They go on to say, “We are concerned about the abuse of ‘hate speech’ as a term to undermine legitimate dissent and urge States to address the core problems addressed by human rights law while promoting rights to privacy, culture, non-discrimination, public protest and peaceful assembly, public participation, freedom of religion and belief, and the freedom of opinion and expression.” They understand the arguments made by Ezra Levant and others. Free speech champions are right to point out that laws that are supposed to be about hate speech often end up being used to stifle legitimate dissent.

These issues impose a juggling act on governments.

These issues impose a juggling act on governments.  They have to think about everyone’s rights to equality, the right to freedom of expression and the right to live in peace.  Keeping all three balls in the air is always challenging.  The next time someone challenges my opposition to hate speech, I’ll remind them of the rights we have to balance against hog wild freedom of expression.

Our experts don’t explain how to accomplish a perfect balance to eliminate the tension between these three human rights. That’s up to each country to figure out based on their own local cultures and challenges.  Even so, they’ve given the world something to think about concerning the development of humanity.  I plan to find out more about this ongoing conversation.

There is always more to learn if we dare to know.

Learn More:
Joint open letter on concerns about the global Increase in hate speech
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
https://daretoknow.ca/2019/10/04/happy-international-day-of-non-violence/

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