December 2, 2023

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Free speech. To limit or not to limit; that is the question.

Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter has raised concerns over his plans for the social media platform. A “free speech absolutist” as he describes himself, he says he is “against censorship that goes far beyond the law”. Reducing moderation could pave the way for hate speech and extremist ideas to spread, some fear, but Musk has pledged to form a ‘moderation council’ as the EU warns him that the platform must abide by its moderation rules. Hate speech did indeed increase in the hours and days after Musk acquired Twitter.

Sir Salman Rushdie, the Indian-British author who was stabbed at a public lecture in New York in August, was also at the centre of a debate on how far free speech can go before it becomes unacceptable.

He was stabbed ten times by twenty-four-year-old Hadi Matar, who claims he read “two pages” of Rushdie’s book: ‘Satanic Verses.’ The book, published in 1988, brought him a blasphemy charge by the then-Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, who promised a $3 million bounty for his death. Thirty-four years on, the alleged motive of his attacker was Rushdie’s historical blasphemy towards the Prophet Muhammad.

But these events raise a key question: What is the right way to deal with hate speech? It certainly isn’t with violence. But where is the line between free speech and the protection of people’s sentiments and beliefs? There are already laws against hate speech but who determines what is hate, and what isn’t?

We spoke to Jacob Mchangama, a Danish lawyer and global free speech expert.

“As a society, we’d have to develop tolerance around speech that we feel goes against our own beliefs”

Jacob Mchangama

Jacob is the founder and director of Justitia, a think tank based in Copenhagen focusing on human rights and freedom of speech. He believes primarily in the importance of unfettered free speech. At one point, he writes in his book: ‘Free Speech: A History from Socrates to Social Media’, “Lost in the incessant focus on the darker sides of free speech—real, perceived, and exaggerated—are the profound benefits of free and open discourse… we jeopardize those benefits if we are unwilling to accept any of the harms or costs that inevitably accompany free expression.”

Jacob’s view is that part of free speech is allowing mockery and criticism. And as a society, we’d have to develop tolerance around speech that we feel goes against our own beliefs.

“What does ensure social peace is a culture of free speech,” Jacob tells us.

“A culture of tolerance and of acceptance, that in a diverse society everyone has the right to speak out their mind, even if that offends you.”

In terms of the violence that Rushdie was met with as a result of his book, Jacob says that the sole responsibility is always on the person “who responds to pens with swords or AK47s.”

Instead, he advocates for the use of unfettered free speech as a way to mitigate violent responses. “The more people are accustomed to different ideas, the more likely they are to react to ideas they find offensive or loathsome with a shrug of the shoulders, or to use criticism rather than using violence.”

One of the greatest arguments against unfettered free speech is that it is usually to the detriment of minority groups, who have to hear harmful rhetoric spewed about them that continues to isolate them from society. To this point, Jacob believes that since limitations of free speech are often decided by the powerful majority, no matter how well-intentioned they are, they backfire on minorities. He believes minorities especially rely on free speech.

“Historically, minorities have always been subject to persecution and censorship and have had to rely on free speech on their ability to speak out, to organize protests and to convince their co-citizens that they deserve equal protection.”

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine that went viral after publishing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad of Islam, considered offensive by the Muslim community worldwide. They republished the cartoons in 2020.

In relation to that, Jacob explains: “In the West, in Denmark for instance, we have adopted some laws that attack the religious speech of Muslims and that shows maybe it wasn’t wise for Muslims to call for limits on free speech during the cartoon affair because when you are a minority and call for limits on free speech, then the majority can adopt their own standards.”

In essence, free speech is a double-edged sword, he proclaims.

So where do we draw the line? How do we strike the balance between protecting people and speech at the same time?

There is no universal definition of hate speech in international law, and perhaps that is one of the reasons it is so hard to impose a ban on. However, the United Nations describes it as, “offensive discourse targeting a group or an individual based on inherent characteristics and that may threaten social peace.”

Jacob implies that hate speech is subjective: “When you get into hate speech ban, it becomes very difficult to define because different people have different ideas. Some Muslim states argue that criticism of Islam is akin to hate speech, and some Jewish organisations say that if you criticise Israel that is akin to anti-Semitism, and I don’t agree with either of those interpretations.”

“I think you should have the right to criticise Israel’s behaviour to Palestinians the same way you should have the right to criticise Islam. In general, at least in mature democracies, there seems to be a correlation at the very least between free speech and social peace, rather than the other way round. The more people who are accustomed to different ideas, the more likely they are to react to ideas they find offensive or loathsome with a shrug of the shoulders or to use criticism rather than using violence and in that sense I think free speech is the antithesis of violence and absolutely necessary to establish social peace in diverse societies.”

He adds later on: “I don’t think you can say that criticism of free speech is fine as long as you don’t offend because offence is subjective. And the more zealously you believe yourself and your doctrines to be the truth, the more likely you are to find offence everywhere. And also I think criticism and mockery of institutions that are powerful is a healthy thing; it’s a non-violent way to shine a critical light on authority and hypocrisy and very often, power leads to corruption and supposedly pious people who hold high office use that for their own gains.”

Whether it aligns with a person’s morals or not, all speech is fair speech, he says. There is no curtailing of hate speech, instead, Jacob says, “Once there’s clear incitement to violence, that’s where you overstep the line of free speech. Sometimes it can be difficult to decide when incitement is true incitement and when it is mere ‘hate speech.’ It’s not always easy, but that would be my guiding principle.”

He adds: “Civil society can create strong antidotes against hatred and intolerance exactly by exercising free speech, so this is one of the main reasons I think free is such a powerful principle and is empowering.”

But is it really possible for us to create antidotes against hatred, by giving free speech the reign to go so far as hate speech? Certainly, there are more effective ways — such as respect, understanding and empathy — to create a society in which we are tolerant of one another.

Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, while upholding the right to free speech, recognises that freedom of expression comes with some risks, and so it has this provision:

“The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.”

Article 10, European Convention on human rights

Poking fun at another person’s belief in the name of ‘free speech’ and ‘open dialogue’ cannot be acceptable. There are other, more appropriate ways to raise criticisms and questions about another person’s way of living that can still lead to candid dialogue.

Charlie Hebdo’s depiction of the Prophet Muhammad of Islam has been in the spotlight of the free speech discussion since 2005, when the cartoons were first published. The depiction made a mockery of a figure that Muslims deeply respect and love. The illustrations published by the magazine exercised their right to free speech and a free press, but it became the root of widespread violence and bloodshed both by Muslims and against them.

The National Observatory noted that in 2020, there was a 53% increase in anti-Muslim-related attacks in France. Figures of hate crimes against Muslims rose by roughly 150% from 2019 to 2020.

Jacob says that in the face of such hatred, it is important to remember, “The mirror image of free speech is that you have that right as well.”

Some Muslims condemned the cartoons and explained why their sentiments were hurt. However, when the images were republished in 2020, it only cemented the notion that unfettered free speech cannot create dialogue. France continued to see a rise in hate crimes against Muslims. In response, it only provoked further extremism, namely the stabbing of French teacher Samuel Patty, who was attacked for displaying a similar image in a class about freedom of expression. Hate always begets hate.

“There was a protest by Muslims after Charlie Hebdo and there had been some previous demonstrations where radicals stood with placards and said ‘behead those who insult Islam’ and instead they had those laugh at those who insult Islam. They are very silly people,” he says.

Although Jacob advocates for no limits on what you can say about religion or things people hold sacred, however distasteful the rhetoric, he admits that highly protected free speech is no excuse for hatred towards religious minorities.

“I would draw the limits at making threats or inciting violence against Muslims. I would morally condemn hate speech against Muslims even if it doesn’t reach the threshold of incitement to violence.”

When we scale the situation down, one could argue: who would want a dialogue with someone who’s offended them? Or who mocks, ridicules and denigrates things they hold dear or sacred? Instead, we’ve created a society in which we accept animosity to flourish. A peaceful society requires peaceful and healthy dialogue and respect towards all people. And with unfettered, unregulated free speech, we always get abuse of free speech.

And yet if we are not curtailing hate speech, do we ultimately end up embracing it?