Hate Speech: The Best Policy Is No Policy

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Earlier this summer, Spanish Cardinal Antonio Cañizares, archbishop of Valencia, was put under government investigation because of a controversial homily he gave at the Catholic University of Valencia. During the homily, Cañizares criticized “radical feminism” and “gender ideology,” which upset the Spanish feminist organization Lambda LGBT, pushing them to file a criminal complaint with the Valencian authorities against Cañizares for “inciting discrimination and hatred.” Fortunately, the Spanish authorities found no reason to prosecute Cañizares, but Lambda LGBT’s attempt to use the authority of the state to silence opposing views is unsettling.

Unfortunately, restrictions to free speech for the purpose of counteracting “hate speech” have been a problem in Europe for decades, dating back to World War II. Originally instituted to curb anti-Semitic speech, these restrictions to free speech were expanded by the United Nations to encompass speech that is “any advocacy of national, racial, or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility, or violence.” The broadness and vagueness of this legal statement is increasingly used as a tool by some, like Lambda LGBT, to silence those who promote ideas they disagree with or think are offensive.

A similar situation occurred in Belfast in 2014, when a pastor named James McConnell described Islam as a “heathen” and “satanic” religion during a sermon that streamed online. He was charged with sending a grossly offensive message by means of a public electronic communications network. McConnell was eventually acquitted because the judge ruled that while McConnell’s words were offensive, they were not “grossly offensive.”

Yet just as there is no standard to measure offensiveness, there is no legitimate criterion to distinguish hateful versus non-hateful conduct. The vagueness that is inherent in free speech restrictions creates room for judicial abuse.

As time goes by, hate speech laws have made their way deeper into society and have been voluntarily applied to social media outlets. On May 31, 2016, the European Union announced in a press release that it had reached an agreement with social media giants like Facebook, Twitter, Microsoft, and YouTube “to encourage the provision of notices and flagging of content that promotes incitement to violence and hateful conduct.” The EU believes “it is essential to ensure that relevant national laws transposing the Council Framework Decision on combating racism and xenophobia are fully enforced by Member States in the online as well as the in the offline environment.” Simply put, the EU wants the hate speech laws of its member nations to be enforced online by social media websites, which means the websites will adopt a policy of deleting content that is “hateful.” Although private companies should be able to control whatever information is on their sites, they should not have to kowtow to the demands of the EU.

There should not be a governmental policy in regards to hate speech. Hate speech laws may originate with good intentions, but they end up becoming tools for those in power to stifle opposing views. Citizens should be free to say what they want no matter how offensive it may be to some people. Society must be open to public discussion and allow for a battlefield of ideas, where iron sharpens iron. Only in this conflict of ideas can the truth be manifested.

John McDonald is a rising senior studying economics and finance at the University of Dallas.