Hate speech and democracy: should we tolerate the intolerant?

Saturday 18 November, 16:0017:15, Kulturhuset Stadsteatern, StockholmBattle of Ideas Europe

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This debate is part of Battle of Ideas Stockholm

Sweden’s ‘hets mot folksgrupp’ law has proscribed ‘agitation against a national or ethnic group’ since 1948. More recently, though, hate-speech legislation has expanded considerably and a person can be held responsible for incitement if a statement or representation ‘threatens or disrespects’ an ethnic group or persons with regards to ‘race, colour, national or ethnic origin, religious belief or sexual orientation’. Internationally, controversy around hate speech has increasingly been focused online, where there has been criticism of social media giants for failing to remove hateful content, including Twitter threats to kill the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and Facebook videos entitled ‘Jews admit organising white genocide’. The European Union has funded Hate Speech Watch, a platform that actively encourages people to report hate speech. Meanwhile the European Commission and major social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube recently announced a Code of Conduct to combat the spread of hate speech.  Minister of Culture Alice Bah Kuhnke suggested that Sweden too was not opposed to legislating against social media companies if no active steps are taken to stop users sharing hate speech.

According to the Expo Foundation, a research center mapping right-wing extremism, activity from neo-nazis in Sweden reached an unprecedented high in 2016. When the Nordic Resistance Movement (NMR) recently marched through the center of Gothenburg, it lead to a national debate reaching all the way up to government-level. Prime minister Stefan Löfvén subsequently invited all parties except the Sweden Democrats, to a meeting about the events. The possibility of introducing new legislation, which would ban neo-nazis from marching, has been raised.

Yet actions against hate speech have not been without their controversies. The Swedish Institute was recently forced to apologise after incidents of hate speech led it to block briefly from its Twitter account thousands of users including Israel’s ambassador in Stockholm. Meanwhile a 70-year-old woman in Dalarna is being prosecuted for expressing a ‘disparaging view of refugees’ after claiming on Facebook that she saw migrants defecating in the streets and setting fire to cars. When police officer Peter Springare found himself the subject of an investigation into his ‘racial hatred’ after posting a rant on Facebook in which he alleged that the majority of violent crime in Sweden is committed by Muslim immigrants, he responded. ‘If you can’t discuss the problem of crime among immigrants without it being called racist propaganda, things are very bad’. So has the legal response to the speech gone too far?

Jenny Ljung, the head of the Swedish Institute, argues that it is hate speech that really threatens free speech. Reporters Without Borders warn of increasing threats against journalists, artists and authors. The Swedish government has launched ‘Defence of the Free Word’, an action plan to combat threats against journalists, elected representatives and artists. So where do the boundaries lie between freedom and protection? Can we really justify hate speech as free speech if it silences those threatened? 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?