Silencing hate speech: censorship or civility?

Saturday 28 October, 16:0017:15, Cinema 2Contemporary Controversies

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Wherever you look today, it seems impossible to escape the ever-swelling debate surrounding hate speech, and the arguably Orwellian laws that aim to tackle it.

In the UK, Theresa May’s 2017 General Election manifesto pledge to prevent online providers from directing users ‘to hate speech, pornography or other sources of harm’ has led the recent cross-party confrontation on eliminating offensive and distasteful speech online. May is not alone in arguing that the unregulated presence of hate speech brings ‘new threats to our security, emotional wellbeing, mental health and the safety of our children’.

The European Union funded Hate Speech Watch is a platform that encourages people to report, denounce and monitor hate speech. Labour MP Yvette Cooper has publicly criticised social-media giants for failing to remove hateful content online, including Twitter threats to kill the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Facebook videos entitled ‘Jews admit organising white genocide’. During a session of the Home Affairs Select Committee in March this year, another Labour MP went as far to accuse internet company executives of ‘commercial prostitution’ for failing to address odious posts that occur online. Late last year, Vera Jourová, an EU commissioner, said: ‘The internet is a place for free speech, not hate speech.’

But has the legal reaction to these concerns gone too far? It’s now deemed hate speech to criticise Islam, to disagree with a person’s right to identify as the opposite gender, or to join a Facebook group called ‘I Hate Christians’. At the 2016 Conservative Party Conference, a speech given by Home Secretary Amber Rudd was recorded as hate speech by police after an Oxford academic made a complaint about its anti-immigrant message. Later this year, a Scottish comedian will stand trial for sharing a video in which he teaches his pet pug to do a Nazi salute.

But while there are clampdowns on comparatively trivial matters, there is more serious cause for concern, too. Videos of Islamist extremists encouraging impressionable young jihadis to carry out ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attacks are readily available after a few minutes of surfing YouTube. British MPs have become the target of increasing hateful messages over recent years, including death threats posted through their front doors. In 2011, Anders Breivik killed 69 teenagers at a Labour party youth camp in Norway; police later discovered he was an avid consumer and sharer of racist, hateful content on his Facebook page and other online sources.

In light of incidents such as these, can we really justify hate speech as free speech? Is there a direct correlation between people spurting hateful words and others carrying out violent actions? Or is it important we distinguish mean words from throwing sticks and stones? From Milo Yiannopoulos to Katie Hopkins, Geert Wilders to ISIS recruiters, are egregious ideologies likely to influence the thoughts and actions of wider society for the worse? Or will the principle of allowing speech to be made freely – no matter how hateful – help society develop for the better?