Hate speech laws – THIS is why I oppose them

I recognize that many people don’t share my stance on free speech, particularly as it relates to hate speech laws. I think that free speech should be free, regardless of its content (making an exception for incitement to violence, which really isn’t speech so much as being an accomplice to assault). I say this because labeling unpopular speech as illegal creates, virtually by necessity, the ability to criminalize any unpopular ideas.

And it’s happening:

Rwanda’s government should review two laws banning the promotion of genocide ideology and sectarianism, Amnesty International says. The campaign groups says the vague wording has enabled their misuse to criminalise dissent. The government was widely criticised for using them to smother opposition in the run-up the elections won by President Paul Kagame this month.

I am not insensitive to the fact that Rwanda is still reeling from the horrific genocide of less than 20 years ago. It is perfectly natural to have a heightened level of concern for hate speech, particularly considering the particular way in which the radio was used to fan the flames of genocidal hatred and to direct death squads. But just as it was wrong to abolish civil liberties in the United States under the Patriot Act following the terrorist attacks of 9 years ago, it is wrong to clamp down on free speech for particularly this reason. Once free speech is criminalized, it opens the gateway to abusing hate speech laws to outlaw legitimate speech.

Rwanda isn’t the only place it’s happening:

South African journalists are finding themselves increasingly at odds with their own government over two proposals that have the potential to limit press freedom. The ruling African National Congress has proposed a Media Appeals Tribunal with power to discipline journalists who engage in what the party calls unethical behaviour. Parliament also is debating a “protection of information” bill that would impose restrictions on access to government information and punishment of up to 25 years in prison for those who violate the law.

The ANC says it is trying to protect the public good.

It’s statements like that that make me understand why conservatives have such a negative reaction when people appeal to what is good for society. Who decides what is good and what is bad? In this particular case, the government is making a choice to imprison people based on its conception that ‘the public good’ is to keep the ANC in power, despite the legitimacy of scandal. By stacking the deck with political appointees, there’s no question that their concept of ‘the public good’ is ‘saving the party’s ass’.

Free speech is a difficult beast to wrangle, particularly since once you allow people to speak freely, you give license to every bigoted asshole under the sun to say whatever he/she wants. It’s not an easy issue to resolve, but I’m firm in my stance that because of both its immense power and potential for abuse, regulating what speech is ‘free’ is a bad way to run a society. Free speech is neither a liberal nor a conservative issue – it’s the most important and fundamental freedom we have. Without it, the rest of them are pretty useless.


  1. says

    I agree with you completely on this issue. There is nothing more important than free speech to maintain an open society to encourage new ideas and discourse. Once one infringement is made, it can be abused and lead to more and more.

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