What Are Human Rights? (54): The Scope and Coverage of Rights, As Exemplified by Free Speech

It’s important to know what exactly is covered by a certain human right, otherwise we can’t be sure that we have a right to do what we do and we can’t properly protect others against violations of their rights. Maybe we think that a right protects a certain thing that we do but in reality this thing is outside the scope of the right. Or maybe we want to protect other people engaging in an activity but none of their rights covers this activity.

So you see the importance of the question of coverage or scope. Having a right means knowing how far this right goes. Answering this question requires an answer to at least three further questions:

  1. Who’s protected by a right? And whose activities are restricted by it?
  2. What types of actions are protected by a right, and to what extent? Where is the line between protected actions and legitimate restrictions on actions?
  3. Which obligations does a right impose on whom?

Let’s try to answer these questions by way of the example of the right to free speech.

1. Who’s protected by the right to free speech? And whose activities are restricted by it?

1.1. Who’s protected?

Both speakers and audiences are protected. A cursory look at the language – “a right to free speech” – would lead us to assume that only speakers are protected, but that’s wrong: the right to free speech includes the right of audiences to receive the free speech of others. The interests of both speakers and audiences are protected by the right to free speech. This is evident when one takes a closer look at the exact formulation of this right in legal texts.

One reason for this is a purely logical one: speech without an audience doesn’t make sense. Another, more substantive reason why the right to free speech also protects the interests of audiences has to do with the role this right plays in the search for truth. In a nutshell: audiences are necessary for the refinement of arguments. Read the post I just linked to for the full story.

Other groups that can legitimately claim protection of their speech are

  • foreigners: there’s no good reason to assume that foreigners residing within a country’s jurisdiction should not enjoy the same speech rights as citizens (the same isn’t necessarily the case for all human rights)
  • future generations: current generations shouldn’t act in ways that restrict the freedom of speech of future generations
  • companies, etc.

1.2. Whose activities are restricted?

A list of protected actors only tells us a tiny bit about how far a right goes. Defining the agents or institutions whose actions are bound by the right is equally important. Traditionally, it’s assumed that the right to free speech – like all other rights – limits the power of governments. Of course it does, but it also does a lot more. If it would only restrict a government’s power to prohibit and sanction forms of speech, then the scope of the right to free speech would be rather limited because private persons would be at liberty to restrict it as they see fit. Theoretically, although not always legally, the right also restricts private individuals, companies, churches etc. None of those agents or institutions has a right to prohibit people from exercising their right to free speech.

2. What types of actions are protected by the right to free speech, and to what extent? And which are legitimate restrictions on actions?

The scope of a right depends on decisions about who is allowed to claim it and about who is bound by this claim, but it also depends on the types of actions it protects or fails to protect. In our example, we have to define “speech”. On the one hand, it can’t just be the spoken or written word since we express ourselves in ways that don’t involve speaking or writing. Audiences also want to receive information in forms different from ordinary language. For example art, data and speech acts such as flag burning should also be covered by the right to free speech.

On the other hand, not all forms of expression or information gathering should be covered, because then everything would be covered and legislation would be impossible: every act including murder can be conceived as an expressive act, and people can find information anywhere. Not all expressive acts or information gathering can or should be legally protected. Hence, one has to draw a line somewhere.

The exact location of the line, and hence the exact scope of the right to free speech, varies from case to case and depends on the impact of language and speech acts on other rights and the rights of others. For example, if hate speech violates other people’s rights (such as their freedom of residence or movement), then this form of speech falls outside the scope of freedom of speech. Mere derogatory speech on the other hand may not result in rights violations and then falls within the scope. Speech acts such as cross burning may also, depending on their impact on the rights of others, fall either within or outside the scope (cross burning during a private party is different from burning a cross in the front lawn of a lone black family living in a racist neighborhood).

Another way of putting this is that the scope of one right is determined by the scope of other rights, or that the scope of the rights of some is determined by the scope of the rights of others. Both scopes need to balanced against each other. This balancing is usually the business of judges and there’s no way to fix the outcome by way of strict rules. It all depends on a personal judgment by a judge about the harm done by including an action in the scope of a right compared to the harm done by excluding it. Hence, the scope of a right can never be completely fixed. We can never tell exactly how far a right goes.

The same logic holds for so-called place and space restrictions and fairness restrictions. A right to free speech doesn’t imply a right to free speech in any chosen space or place: not everyone as a right to publish in the New York Times or to speak in Congress; and you can’t insist that you have a right to speak in someone else’s house or private property, unless proper balancing has resulted in a judgment that in a specific case the right to private property should give way. (The latter may be the case when private restaurant and shop owners band together to discriminate black customers and when those customers stage protests). Place and space restrictions can be justified either by the necessity to respect the scope of other rights (property for instance) or by the fact that sufficient alternative speaking channels are available (the NYT isn’t the only newspaper).

Examples of fairness restrictions are the prohibition of the heckler’s veto and the fairness doctrine. In both examples, the right to free speech of some is restricted in order to guarantee the right to free speech of others (proper balancing is again required; methods of balancing are discussed here).

Obviously, the actual as opposed to the theoretical scope of the right to free speech isn’t just determined by legitimate restrictions. In real life, as opposed to ideal theory, governments and (groups of) individuals impose illegitimate restrictions. And other, more creeping restrictions such as chilling effects, psychological biases, self-censorship and political correctness, exist as well.

3. Which obligations are imposed on whom?

A final way of measuring the scope of the right to free speech is by having a look at the nature of the obligations it creates. More wide ranging obligations make for a wider scope, and limited obligations for a limited scope. And here as well we find a common misunderstanding. (A first misunderstanding was that the right only protects speakers; another was that it only limits the power of governments). It’s not true that the right to free speech only imposes a negative duty not to restrict speech. This negative duty is important but it’s also meaningless when it’s not accompanied by more positive duties. For example, a person’s speech may not be restricted by anyone and yet her lack of education, leisure time or other resources make it impossible for her to engage in meaningful speech. Hence, the government and others have certain duties to provide resources: education, internet access etc. And let’s not forget that a negative duty to refrain from speech restrictions requires a positive duty to provide mechanisms such as courts, a police force and other means to undo or prevent speech restrictions.

Similar arguments can be made for most other rights.

PS: here are some useful links that I’ve recovered from a previous post and that are relevant to the question at hand:

A related post on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on free speech here.


Racism (30): What Should We Call Non-White People, and How Do Names Affect Us?

Obviously, “nigger” is out. Initially a neutral term – from the Latin “niger” which means black – it was often used without racist connotation during much of the 19th century, but it became increasingly pejorative and derogatory. Even though it’s still used today by some, shall we say “African Americans”, to describe each other, often even endearingly, it’s done with.

“Negro” also means “black”, notably in Spanish and Portuguese. This term took over from “nigger” and then also from “colored” as the more polite appellation (“colored” was common usage during a few decades at the beginning of the 19th century).

“Negro” was long considered to be the proper English-language term for people of sub-Saharan African origin. This lasted until the late 1960s. Martin Luther King could still call himself a Negro. However, the term was already criticized in the 1950s en 1960s, notably by Malcolm X who successfully tried to redeem the word “black” which was seen as offensive during much of the first half of the 20th century. And indeed, “black was beautiful” during the “black power” era in the 1970s.

“African American” then took over from “black” which went from repudiated to acceptable to repudiated again. (Initially, the term was “Afro-American” derived from “Anglo-American”). “African American” has been the standard term since the 1980s, and it still is today.  “Negro” is now considered to be acceptable only in a historical context, and you should avoid talking about “black people”. African American – a term which for the first time doesn’t reference skin color – was initially hyphenated: “African-American”, like “Irish-American” or “Cuban-American”. This has become problematic very recently in reaction to the belittling phrase “hyphenated Americans“. Hence the recent omission of the hyphen.

Many will see this movement of the language of race as political correctness “gone wild”, but language does evolve and words carry meaning and historical references. Meanings and historical references can influence ideas and behavior. People who insist on using the word “nigger” are likely to have certain very specific ideas about those whom they call “nigger”. And these ideas can circulate when the word circulates. Even those who are tempted to see PC at work here will surely agree that “nigger” is an unacceptable and damaging use of language. But if “nigger” is, then why not also certain other words?

“Negro” was quite often used during the Civil War era and during the Civil Rights struggle, understandably, and was the standard expression in the period between. “Blacks” took over in the 70s, and “African American” in the 90s. “Nigger” has always been taboo in published works.

More posts in this series are here.

Religion and Human Rights (31): Polygamy, Right or Rights Violation?

In the U.S., 9 states – including Utah, the center of Mormonism – make polygamy a crime, while 49 states have bigamy statutes that can be used to prosecute polygamous families. Polygamy is only legal in North Africa and most of the Muslim world. Does it make sense to promote the right to same-sex, interracial and interreligious marriage, and at the same time oppose polygamy? (By the way, polygamy usually means polygyny: one husband, multiple wives – the opposite, polyandry, is extremely rare).

Marriage is a recognized human right, but does the word “marriage”, as it is used in human rights language, also cover polygamous marriage? From the texts of human rights treaties and declarations, it’s not even clear that it covers same-sex marriage – although it undoubtedly covers interracial and interreligious marriage. The word “marriage” isn’t clearly defined in the texts. Article 16 of the Universal Declaration merely states the following:

1. Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

2. Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

3. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Polygamy or same-sex marriage aren’t specifically mentioned as being forms of marriage that are included in the right to marry, but neither is it the case that sexual orientation or the numbers of partners are stipulated as unwarranted limitations to the right to marry. So the phrasing as it stands neither includes nor excludes polygamy or same-sex marriage as a right. Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights isn’t much clearer.

However, the case for same-sex or interracial marriage can be based on other articles, such as the non-discrimination provisions. Article 2 of the International Covenant states:

Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to respect and to ensure to all individuals within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction the rights recognized in the present Covenant, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

Sexual orientation is not mentioned but it is accepted that the list given here is a list of examples and not exhaustive. “Without distinction of any kind” is clear enough. Article 3 states:

The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to ensure the equal right of men and women to the enjoyment of all civil and political rights set forth in the present Covenant.

And Article 26:

All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.

It’s not clear whether polygamists can invoke the same non-discrimination provisions. Perhaps the right to privacy can help them. Article 12 of the Universal Declaration:

No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence… Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.

However, apart from the question whether polygamy can be defended or not on the basis of existing human rights law, there are some good reasons why perhaps there shouldn’t be a right to polygamous marriage, even if it can be established that there is such a right. Wives may be pressured into polygamous marriages or prohibited from exiting them; they may suffer inequality and oppression in their marriage; and young girls may be forced to marry. The same risks exist of course in normal monogamous marriage, but are perhaps more important in polygamous marriage.

Moreover, polygamous marriage poses certain risks that are non-existent in normal marriage: excess boys in polygamous communities are often ostracized and condemned to a life of poverty and homelessness; and there’s a risk that marriage as an institution and as a general right may suffer when polygamy becomes widespread:

Polygamy is bad social policy for exactly the reason gay marriage is good social policy: everyone should have the opportunity to marry. Broad access to marriage is important not only for individual wellbeing but for social stability. And, to oversimplify only a little, when one man gets two wives, some other man gets no wife. There’s no better path to inequality, social unrest, and authoritarian social structures than polygamy. (source)

And yet, if it’s the case that

  • polygamy remains a fringe custom
  • polygamists are generally exercising their free choice and informed consent
  • no children are forced to marry or are sexually abused
  • and excess boys are not ostracized

then why would anyone oppose polygamy? Monogamous marriage isn’t illegal because some wives are beaten or because there are some cases of monogamous child marriage. One could oppose polygamy for religious reasons, but those aren’t sufficient in liberal democracies. Polygamy can only be problematic when it’s a practice that regularly and intrinsically leads to rights violations, as it does when child brides are common, when wives are commonly forced into marriage or when widespread polygamy makes it very difficult for men to find brides and marry.

Another thing to consider is gender equality. Even if polygamy is rare enough not to deny men a reasonable chance of marriage, and even if all polygamous wives are adults who freely consent to their marriage and who have equal standing within their marriages, then it’s still the case that the practice itself can signal gender inequality and hence perpetuate it. The reason is that polygyny, by its very nature, signals that men have more rights than women: a man can take several wives, but not vice versa. A legal right to polygamy would of course also entail a right to polyandry, but it’s unlikely that the risks to gender equality created by polygyny would be offset by many cases of polyandry. The more likely result is that polygyny fosters preexisting misogynistic prejudice because polygyny will always be more common that polyandry.

So, in the end a lot depends on how often polygamy results in rights violations. Is polygamy more like child marriage, which by definition is a rights violation (it involves pedophilia, the denial of education, health problems resulting from pregnancy at an early age etc.)? Or is it more like monogamous or same-sex marriage, which may produce rights violations such as domestic violence, but not intrinsically so? If some practice by definition violates rights, it should obviously be prohibited. If the practice only does so by accident and exceptionally, then it should in general be protected, especially when the practice itself is a human right. I claim that there is nothing inherently wrong with polygamy, as long as it’s not set up in such a way that it violates rights – as long as in most cases the wives consent (in an informed way), children are left alone, boys aren’t ostracized, and the practice isn’t so widespread that men can’t marry or that women feel they are second class citizens.

In this respect, polygamy is similar to hate speech. In the case of hate speech we are also dealing with a presumptive right, but one that can be abrogated when its exercise becomes too widespread with negative consequences for the rights of others. When a small black minority for instance is overwhelmed by hate speech, to such an extent that black people can’t go outside for fear of constant insult, then their right to freedom of movement should trump the speech rights of the haters.

For a more pessimistic view on polygamy, go here.

Hate (8): Tolerance and Hate Speech

Jeremy Waldron claims that tolerance is more than merely the absence of violent assault on people who have adopted beliefs and practices we don’t like, and more than simply abstaining from persecution and legal sanction. He says that tolerance also implies the absence of hate speech and a legal prohibition of hate speech. Members of minority groups whose beliefs and practices are strongly disapproved of by the rest of society, have a right to go about their lives without the threat of constant hatred, vilification, insult and humiliation. They have a right to visit the shops and restaurants they want to visit, and to generally interact with others without being treated as pariahs.

And, indeed, that sounds quite reasonable. People undoubtedly have and should have such rights. But others have rights as well: hate mongers have a right to free speech, and racist shop keepers and restaurant owners have a right to ban whoever they want from their private property, under certain circumstances.

When the rights of the haters and the rights of despised minorities come into conflict, the different rights have to be balanced. I argued before that the right of private property of racists, or the freedom of association of prejudiced groups wanting to exclude homosexuals for example, should no longer be protected when these racists and bigots have become so numerous and authoritative that the objects of their racism or bigotry no longer have any alternative options and risk having their own rights violated. In the Jim Crow era, for example, it was very difficult for blacks to move around, find decent housing etc. because there were so many transport companies and landowners discriminating against them that their options were seriously diminished. Hence their rights were violated, and violated to such a degree that limitations on the rights of their tormentors were justified.

Similarly, in our current example, hate speech should only be banned and the right to free speech of hate mongers should only be limited when there’s an impact on the rights of their targets. Claiming, as Waldron seems to do, that a tolerant society generally requires such bans and limits will not do. That’s just not enough as a justification. For example, writing blood libel on an obscure blog that nobody reads should probably not be prohibited. On the other hand, burning crosses in the front yards of black people and forcing them to move elsewhere is a violation of their right to freely choose their residence. The same is true if people dare not walk the streets because of the risk of being constantly cursed at. These two cases of expressions of hate speech can and should be banned because they result in rights violations. Other expressions of hate speech should be protected. A general claim that tolerance requires not just constraints on coercion and violent persecution but also a general respect for people’s dignity and a social atmosphere free of hatred, insult and defamation, goes too far. It would be nice if the world was free of hate and if respect for dignity was the normal attitude, but there’s no right to such a world. Nor should there be.

If we were to adopt such a right, we’d run the risk of terminating debate altogether. If tolerance includes a general ban on hate speech it’s likely that it will also imply banning vehement discussion of other people’s supposed errors. You don’t need to engage in hate speech in order to have a vehement and lively discussion and criticism of others, but a lot of such criticism can be readily understood and perceived by its targets as an expression of hate and an insult to dignity. These targets can then use the power of law to shut down the debate, and that’s not something we want. Ideally, specific instances of speech should not be judged as inadmissible instances of hate speech and proper objects of legal sanction simply on the basis of the feelings or perceptions of the targets, but only on the basis of the objective consequences for the rights of the targets. Tolerance that includes a ban on all hate speech is a tolerance that in the end may silence us all.

More on tolerance, hate speech, defamation and insults. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (31): Or Maybe We Don’t? – Exploring the “Dark Side” of Human Rights

Do human rights have a “dark side“? There are some specific complaints about the nefarious or even evil consequences of certain particular human rights, and there are complaints about the harmful consequences of human rights in general. The former complaints are a lot easier to deal with, and I’ll start with those.

Complaints about particular human rights

Freedom of expression is believed to be harmful because it protects pornography, which in turn leads to gender based violence and gender discrimination. Furthermore, it implies the free dissemination and reproduction of hate and it therefore fosters violence, racism and different kinds of “phobias”. And, finally, it allows blasphemy and hence it encourages religious tensions and violence.

Those human rights that guarantee a fair trial, and more particularly the rights of defendants, make it more difficult to have an effective criminal justice system. As a result, it becomes more likely that dangerous criminals return to society. Also, the right to life makes it harder to justify capital punishment, with the same result.

The right to privacy can support gender subordination and make it more difficult to tackle domestic violence.

Some human rights can even bring us to the edge of destruction (a ban on torture makes it impossible to deal with ticking time bomb terrorists).

Such specific complaints against particular human rights can be countered rather easily. Most if not all of the harmful consequences of rights are violations of other rights. If we grant that rights are limited by other rights, then we can balance rights against each other. Or one can argue that the supposed harmful consequences of some rights will (almost) never occur, or that they aren’t really harmful at all. For example, if we don’t torture we won’t make terrorism more likely. And some forms of pornography or hate speech aren’t really very dangerous.

Complaints about human rights in general

A lot harder to answer is the challenge that there’s something wrong, not with particular human rights, but with human rights as such. This challenge can take different forms.

Human rights are supposed to be the fig leaf of international intervention and modern imperialism. The anti-Taliban intervention in Afghanistan, for instance, was partly a reaction to 9-11 but it was also justified by reference to the brutal rule of the Taliban. It may be a meager defense, but if we were to reject everything that can be abused we wouldn’t have much left. The question then becomes one of degree: are human rights more likely to be abused for imperialist reasons, or more likely to serve the beneficial goals for which they are intended? And what is the probable balance of good and bad that will result from those different uses of human rights? I think the good that comes from human rights clearly outweighs the bad, and that the bad will happen anyway, whether or not people use the excuse of human rights while making it happen.

There’s a similar claim about the inherent cultural imperialism in human rights. Human rights, even when they’re not used to justify war, military intervention or territorial occupation, are still imperialist because they imply the imposition of western values on other cultures. Human rights are then believed to be a form of cultural aggression and part of a neocolonial effort to extend the individualist, secular and modern culture of the West elsewhere in the world, destroying the indigenous cultures in the process. This claim, however, is based on some rather shaky foundations: that human rights can only be found in the West, that intercultural transmission is necessarily aggressive, one-sided and involuntary, that human rights express a culture, that human rights are individualist etc.

Then there’s the claim that the abstract nature of human rights removes the personal and the specific from cases, and removes therefore the things that make us care about cases. I dealt with this complaint before, so I won’t repeat myself. The core of the reply would be that one approach – an abstract one – doesn’t exclude a more contextualized and specific one. For instance, one can talk about the abstract desirability of the right not to be tortured and about the errors in reasoning of those arguing for exceptions to this right, and at the same time one can talk about specific cases of torture.

Another complaint is the classic marxist one: the individualism of human rights spills over into egoism and capitalist greed. Again, I refer to an older post for a detailed reply. Suffice it to say that human rights as claims on others can indeed lead to divisiveness and a lack of social harmony, and that human rights as claims for your rights can promote selfishness. These tendencies, however, are canceled by the more communitarian nature of other uses of rights (religious liberty, tolerance, freedom of association etc.).

Still another complaint is about the victimization inherent in human rights. Focusing on people’s human rights violations means focusing on their status as victims, and talking about people as victims is somewhat infantilizing. Human rights activists do indeed often view non-whites, non-males and non-westerners as passive victims, incapable of agency, waiting to be rescued by do-gooders. This obviously reinforces their subordination. (More on self-defeating human rights policies here). This complaint is more about the way people act when trying to promote human rights than about human rights as such.

A final complaint about human rights is that they give people false hope, at least those people in the poorest countries of the world. What is the point of having a right when you don’t have the means to realize that right, when there’s no way of securing the things you have a right to? For billions of people all over the world, the right not to suffer ill health, poverty or homelessness is just a sick joke. Why should we have rights when there’s no way to make them real? Good luck going to a judge in a famine infested country and asking him to respect your right to food. And even if we can make our rights real, it’s better to use politics, science and economics than abstract rights that don’t tell us how to move forward. The reply to this complaint would focus on the benefits of having rather ambitious goals, even if the complete realization of those goals is not yet possible. At least one can measure progress. And it would also focus on the realistic nature of most human rights goals. For example, it’s simply not true that poverty eradication is utopian.

More posts in this series here.

What Are Human Rights? (35): Freedom of Expression is Freedom of What Exactly?

Another way to frame the question in the title of this post is: what falls under the header of “expression”, and what not? Only if something is justifiably called expression can it enjoy the protection of the right to free expression. I’ll argue below that “expression” covers more actions than the ones we intuitively classify under that concept. Hence, freedom of expression protects more than we think it protects.

And yet, it’s not because something is expression that it automatically enjoys protection. Some actions which we readily classify as “expression” are not and should not be protected by freedom of speech. In other words, freedom of expression covers more and at the same time less than we think.

The obvious type of action that is covered by the right to free speech, and the type that represents the large majority of expressive actions, is speaking and writing in day-to-day language. Such actions enjoy a prima facie protection by the right to free speech. Nothing special about that. However, the right also applies to other expressive actions, ones that do not involve speech or writing in ordinary language:

  • some non-linguistic means of expression, such as visual art
  • some forms of protest such as the burning of a draft card, a flag or a cross
  • pornography
  • the display of symbols (e.g. a swastika)
  • etc.

These types of expressive actions can also claim protection in certain circumstances.

So, some things which are not readily identified as speech are nevertheless considered as speech acts and receive some form of protection from the right to free speech.

On the other hand, some actions that are unmistakably speech – such as hate speech, incitement etc. – are often justifiably excluded from the protection of the right to free speech.

Free speech therefore covers at the same time more and less than a cursory examination would conclude. However, the broad definition of speech that expands speech beyond mere linguistic acts does create a problem. Non-linguistic expressive actions are hard to delineate. All actions can include an expressive component, and it’s often difficult to determine when an agent intended to convey a message through her actions. So the concept can become too broad, and we risk, as a result, that freedom of speech covers all actions and becomes indistinguishable from freedom tout court. That can’t be the purpose.

Notwithstanding this problem, it’s obvious that not all linguistic or non-linguistic expressive actions should enjoy protection by the right to free speech. Terrorism is certainly an expressive action, but no one would claim that it should be protected by freedom of speech.

Beside the “freedom of what?” question, there’s another interesting one: “freedom from what?” Usually, freedom of expression, like many other type of freedom, is believed to be primarily or exclusively a freedom from government interference with speech. While that’s an important dimension of freedom, it’s not the only one. Rights have a horizontal as well as a vertical dimension: citizens can also violate each others rights, and hence freedom of expression for example is also a freedom from interference by fellow-citizens. More on the dimensions of human rights is here. More on free speech here.

Types of Human Rights Violations (5): Human Rights Eating Themselves – The Case of Silencing

Some human rights make themselves impossible some of the time. Take the right to free speech: certain forms of the exercise of this right make it difficult if not impossible for others to exercise their version of the right. Free speech for some can silence others. That may sound strange because it’s usually the violation of the right to free speech that silences.

I’m not talking about obvious cases such as the heckler’s veto because those are not really interesting. Below are some more contentious examples.


A lot of pornography depicts women as inferior and consequently contributes to the continued subordination of women. Both men and women can come to see women as subordinate objects of desire, unable or at least unlikely to speak, complain, withhold consent or resist. Pornography is then taken to provide factually accurate and morally correct information about women as silent and submissive objects of desire and sexual use. In the case of women, this process may silence them, and not only with regard to sexual consent. It’s not just that women’s speech fails to persuade or that men fail to listen (“when a woman says ‘no’ she doesn’t mean it”). It’s worse because women may even fail to attempt to persuade in the first place: they learn that their silence is the right attitude. Pornography deprives women of the capacity to speak.

Politically correct talk

Some of us use our right to free speech as a means to propagate the rule that certain words shouldn’t be said or certain topics shouldn’t be discussed because these words and topics tend to cement prejudice and to have self-fulfilling effects. Others may decide to remain silent as a reaction to this rule, because of shame, because they fear professional or reputational consequences, or because they genuinely believe that speaking in a certain manner or about a certain topic does have negative consequences for minority groups. Hence, political correctness silences certain perspectives, but probably not in the same deep manner as pornography.

Powerful voices

Powerful voices, by which I mean voices backed up by lots of money or influence, can monopolize discourse and drown out competing voices. When certain points of view are pushed by well-funded think tanks and lobbyists or by unbalanced media outlets, then less competitive or powerful perspectives are silenced.

Hate speech

When members of minority groups are consistently harassed by hateful voices, when crosses are burned in their front yards, when they’re told not to go to certain places or relate to certain persons, then they may decide that it isn’t wise to protest. They may even internalize the discourse about their inferiority, in which case they are similar to women who have internalized the pornographic female ideal.

These 4 examples of the right to free speech eating itself show that this right – and perhaps other rights as well – should include the right to conditions favorable or necessary to its exercise. When combating restrictions on free speech, we should not only include explicit restrictions but also restrictions of its preconditions. Free speech doesn’t only get hard when governments or fellow-citizens overtly interfere, censor or persecute you for speaking your mind. In free societies you can supposedly say what you want, but how can you say what you want when the “you” in question is shaped and deformed by forces operating under the surface and is turned into a subordinate object that doesn’t even think of speaking? Or, somewhat less extremely, when fear of consequences forces you to remain silent or when a lack of balance in public discourse makes it impossible for you to be heard?

This last point raises a potential confusion: the right to free speech doesn’t include a right to be heard or to be listened to; the duty to respect free speech doesn’t include the duty to listen. That would go too far, even if we admit that free speech is useless without anyone listening. There’s a difference between a duty to listen and a duty not to silence. The latter duty may imply that we need to impose some restrictions on some forms of speech. If pornography or hate speech silences women or minorities, then the right to free speech of women and minorities may require restrictions on the right to free speech of pornographers and haters. Paradoxically, restricting speech can enhance speech.

A related post about self-defeating human rights is here. More on pornography, political correctness and hate speech.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (30): Language

The effect of language on human rights can be straightforward, as in the case of hate speech. Imagine an individual member of a racial minority living among members of the majority. The latter are constantly hurling insults and hateful bile at this individual, making it almost impossible for her to move about the neighborhood, find employment and do many of the other things she has a right to do. In this case, a particular type of language and a particular use of this language has obvious repercussions on someone’s human rights.

But what I’m interested in here are more subtle effects of language on human rights. Take the example of the gender-exclusive pronoun. In most languages, personal pronouns distinguish male from female, and the male pronoun is the default: when we’re not talking about a specific person, or when we’re talking about a mixed gender group, then we use the male pronoun. (This is similar to the equally common rule that children should get the surname of the father). Attempts to invent and promote gender-neutral or gender-inclusive pronouns haven’t quite succeeded, and the habit of using the female pronoun as the gender-exclusive one is often considered awkward. I also fail to avoid the traditional rule in my writing. In general, this problem is often labeled a fake one, invented by people high on political correctness.

And yet, the problem isn’t fake at all. Compared to other, more extreme uses of language such as hate speech, the harm done by the use of gender-exclusive pronouns may be small, but it’s not negligible. There’s a study here that tries to measure the harm:

Three studies assessed whether a common cultural practice, namely, the use of gender-exclusive language (e.g., using he to indicate he or she), is experienced as ostracism at the group level by women. Women responded to the use of gender-exclusive language (he) during a mock job interview with a lower sense of belonging, less motivation, and less expected identification with the job compared to others exposed to gender-inclusive (he or she) or gender-neutral (one) language (Studies 1 and 2). Moreover, the more emotionally disengaged women became over the course of a job interview upon hearing gender-exclusive language, the less motivation and job identification they subsequently reported (Study 3). Together, these studies show that subtle linguistic cues that may seem trivial at face value can signal group-based ostracism and lead members of the ostracized group to self-select out of important professional environments.

Another study focused on the use of gendered words in job ads, and found that ads signal whether a job is typically held by men or women. As a result of this signaling, women are less likely to apply to certain jobs, and this in turn perpetuates gender inequality in the workplace. Wording differences in ads affect the job’s relative appeal to men and women, independent of the type of job. The use of more masculine wording such as “competitive” makes traditionally female-dominated jobs more appealing to men, and vice versa.

In both these examples – gender-exclusive pronouns and gendered language in job ads – women respond – or are made to respond – in an unconscious way so as to perpetuate gender inequality.

A similar example of language affecting human rights is called stereotype threat: when the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent through some kind of preliminary “information” or briefing, then you perform worse at that task. For example, if a group of girls about to take a mathematics test, is “reminded” that boys tend to do better on this type of test, it’s likely that the girls will do more poorly on the test than they would have done had they not been told. It’s not difficult to imagine cases in which this can be used in order to perpetuate inequality, submission and domination. (More on stereotype threat here and here).

I just mentioned signaling, and signaling in the more strict definition of the term – engaging in speech or activity not necessarily for the sake of this speech or activity but in order to convey relevant information about yourself (for example, people acquire an education and talk about it not only because they want to be educated but also because they want to signal ability to potential employers) – is yet another example of the way in which language affects human rights. Take the case of capital punishment: I strongly believe that this is not about fighting crime, just retribution or desert, or even anger and revenge. Proponents of capital punishment, by expressing their support for it, signal their own moral rectitude. This is especially important for politicians, elected judges etc. In other words, for those who could, if they wanted, end the practice. (More on human rights and signaling is here).

Obviously, language doesn’t always have a negative effect on human rights. It’s easy to find examples of a positive effect: storytelling can promote empathy, and language aimed at shaming people can rid the world of rights violations when reasoning is insufficient.

The Ethics of Human Rights (45): Is There A Right To Do Wrong?

Absolutely, there is. People have a right to vote for incompetent politicians; to express hatred; to organize hate groups; to insult and mock people; to burn books etc. All of these things are wrong in most plausible conceptions of morality, and yet they are part and parcel of human rights, and should be, to the extent that they don’t cause rights violations. Does this make human rights wrong? Objectionable? No it doesn’t, at least not necessarily. Human rights are objectionable if they have bad consequences, but only bad consequences in the sense of rights violations. Hence human rights are objectionable if they produce violations of other rights or the rights of others.

Some of the examples I just gave of the use of human rights may result in bad consequences. Hate speech can harm people’s rights. However, it’s often extremely difficult to measure the consequences of rights. For example, bad consequences can produce good consequences: e.g. allowing people to produce hate speech can convince a lot of people of the unattractiveness or disadvantages of certain ideologies.

Still, no matter what the consequences of the human rights are, we’ll still be stuck with differences between human rights and morality because some of the consequences of some rights will be clearly immoral. The two will probably never completely overlap. Some of the uses of human rights will produce outcomes that are a net negative from a moral point of view, even in the long run. So how should we react to people exercising their rights in an immoral way and in a way that produces immoral outcomes? It’s difficult, at first sight, to contemplate the use of morality to tell them to stop, since they are exercising their rights. However, rights are seldom absolute and can be limited if necessary. It depends on the nature of the immoral outcomes of the use of human rights. When we’re talking about an outcome that is immoral because it offends or hurts the feelings of people, the justification to do something about it is a lot less strong than when we’re talking about an outcome that is immoral because it violates the rights of people. In the latter case we should act and try to find a balance between the rights of different people, namely those people exercising their rights in an immoral way and those suffering the consequences of this exercise. In the former case, our actions should probably be limited to persuasion, education etc.

Another argument in favor of a right to do wrong does not focus on consequences. Rights entitle us to make our own choices, and making your own choices is a moral good in itself. If this moral good leads to immoral choices and these choices are immoral because of the negative consequences for other people, then it’s not necessarily those consequences that are most important. If we force people to do the right thing, we’re taking away their right to make their own choices, and we’d also be acting immorally. Hence, there’s a conflict between two moral maxims, and it’s not obvious that the maxim that says we should limit negative consequences for others is always the most important of the two. It depends on the harm done by those consequences, and the degree of choice limitation that would result from trying to avoid those consequences.

No matter what we do, there will always be cases of rights that result in wrongs, just as there are moral wrongs without corresponding rights (keeping promises is moral but not a right; the same is true for telling the truth, helping friends, being faithful to your spouse etc.). Of course, many actions are both morally wrong and a violation of rights, or both morally right and respectful of rights, so we shouldn’t make too much of an issue of the right to do wrong. But still, it is an issue and it’s good to know that it’s an issue.

Does the existence of a right to do wrong imply that rights are divorced from morality? Well, it makes it a bit harder to argue that rights are merely a subset of morality. But it doesn’t mean that we should go to the other extreme and say that rights are an exclusively legal matter separated from moral concerns. That extreme would land us squarely in the territory of legal positivism, or the theory that states that we only have those rights that are recognized in law. And that’s not a pleasant territory since it makes it impossible to challenge deficiencies in the rights recognized by the law. In order to challenge those deficiencies, you need a notion of moral rights, rights that are not yet (fully) recognized by the law (there wouldn’t have been a Martin Luther King in the land of legal positivism for example). But in order to have moral rights, rights have to belong to morality, and it seems that a right to do wrong makes this belonging problematic. However, we can anchor rights in morality by arguing that morality is more than the teaching of what we should or shouldn’t do. We just stipulate that rights talk belongs to morality, and conflicts between elements of morality – in this case rights and wrongs – are nothing unusual.

More posts in this series are here.

Limiting Free Speech (44): Hate Speech as a Speech Act

As in J.L. Austin’s phrase, “how to do things with words”, we actually do things when we speak. When we use language, we don’t just say things, describe things or communicate, but we also act, very much in the same way as when we pick up a stone or push someone around. When we use language in education we educate people and make better persons. When we apologize we heal people. When we command we make people do certain things. Etc. Now, my argument is that hate speech is a kind of speech act understood in this way, and more specifically it is a form of command. Those who engage in hate speech typically use speech that takes the form of a command, explicitly or implicitly. They want to coerce other people to act in certain ways, and they do this in two ways (usually combined in one single speech act):

  • They want to coerce their (potential) followers to act in certain ways towards hated groups. For example, people proclaiming that homosexuals are sinners are not just describing a reality (or what they believe to be reality) or communicating information about homosexuals (or what they believe to be information). On top of that, they also want other people to avoid homosexuals, to ostracize them, to discriminate them, or even to kill them. To the extent that they succeed, they engage in speech acts, and not merely speech.
  • They also want the hated groups to act in a certain way. In most cases, they want them to go away, know their place, keep silent, change their habits etc. The burning of a cross in the front yard of the only African-American family in the neighborhood is a clear sign that these people aren’t welcome. Again, when these speech acts succeed in driving people away they are more than just speech.

A speech act is an act or an action in the dictionary sense of the accomplishment of an objective, the causation of change by the exertion of power etc. Given that it’s not “pure speech” it’s not obvious that it should be a priori and absolutely protected by freedom of speech. (Just like abuse in private is not merely a private act and shouldn’t a priori be protected by the right to privacy). It’s a form of speech that, like other actions, has real consequences for real people. These people may have rights that protect them against these consequences, such as the freedom to choose a residence, the right not to be discriminated against, the right to life etc. When speech acts violate these rights, there’s some balancing to do and it’s not the case that some people’s right to free speech always takes precedence.

Limiting Free Speech (43): The Consequences of Hate Speech

Some of the consequences of hate speech are human rights violations; others are not. Only the former are good reasons to criminalize hate speech and carve out an exception to the right to free speech. Rights can only be limited for the sake of other rights or the rights of others (more here). Let’s go over the different possible consequences of hate speech and see whether or not they imply rights violations.

Hate speech lowers self-esteem in the targets. People who are repeatedly subjected to hateful remarks or jokes about their race, gender, sexual orientation etc. tend to develop feelings of inferiority, stress, fear and depression. Of course, there’s no right not to be depressed, fearful, stressed etc. Therefore, we can say that hate speech should be protected speech when its consequences are limited to these. These are harmful and brutal consequences, but not harmful or brutal enough to be rights violations. We should be concerned about them and try to do something, but this “something” doesn’t include limiting free speech rights. However, people who are extremely intimidated and stressed and who have a deeply negative view of themselves tend to isolate themselves. Isolation isn’t a human rights violation, but couldn’t we argue that willfully isolating people means violating some of their rights? Isolated people don’t speak, assemble, associate etc. In that case, we could argue for limits on the rights of hate mongers.

Hate speech often has even more extreme consequences. Targets of hate speech may feel compelled to leave their homes and move elsewhere, to quit their jobs, and to avoid certain parts of town and public areas. This is a direct violation of their freedom of movement, freedom of residence, right to work and possibly even their right to a certain standard of living. It’s obvious that the free speech rights of the haters should in such cases be deemed less important than the many rights of their victims.

Hate speech can also means invasion of privacy, for example in the case of repeated phone calls, hate mail, or stalking.

Violations of property rights are another possible consequence of hate speech. Hate speech sometimes means vandalism, graffiti (sometimes even inside the homes of the targets), cross burning in someone’s front lawn etc. These cases of hate speech already start to resemble hate crime.

The line between hate speech and hate crime is even thinner when speech is not just hateful but an incitement to violence. For example, hate speech can provoke race riots; it can help hate groups with an existing tendency toward violence to attract new recruits etc. (a larger group will feel more confident to engage in hate violence). And what if hate speech allows hate groups to gain control of (local) government? That would probably lead to discriminating policies and laws.

This overview of possible and actual consequences of hate speech should concern those of us who care about more human rights than just freedom of speech, and who know that different human rights aren’t always in harmony with each other. In some circumstances, some rights need to give way in order to protect other rights. That’s an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the value pluralism inherent in the system of human rights.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (24): Political Rhetoric, Violence and Free Speech

My two cents about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords:

  • The attack was obviously politically inspired, even though the shooter may have been insane. An insane act isn’t necessarily apolitical. There may or may not be a direct causal link between the attack and the “heated political rhetoric” that has come to characterize American politics and that often borders on incitement. (Compared to other western democracies, the political language is indeed extreme in the US). If there is such a link, it will be very hard to establish, given what we know about the psychology of the attacker.
  • In general, violent rhetoric can contribute to actual violence (see this paper for example). The case of the Rwanda genocide is well-known. And we don’t need to go and look at extremes in order to find cases of hate speech turning into hate crime. There are not a few pedophiles who have had there whereabouts shouted from the rooftops and who suffered the consequences. Given the omnipresence and ease-of-use of the media in developed societies, what is published and broadcast through these media may very well nurture or even provoke extremism and hate in society. It’s futile to deny this possibility.
  • This general conclusion does not warrant the automatic linking of a case of violence to instances of political rhetoric that seem to be a possible inspiration. In other words, it’s not because Sarah Palin was silly enough to publish a map with cross-hairs “targeting” Giffords (among others) in a purely political and non-violent way, that her actions caused the attack. Maybe these actions contributed, maybe not. Most likely we’ll never know. And even if they did contribute in driving a sick person over the edge – which is not impossible – then they are most likely only one element in a large set of causal factors, including the perpetrator’s education, medical care (or lack thereof), the ease with which he could acquire a gun etc. That large set doesn’t drown individual causes but it does diminish the importance of each (possible) cause. Human motivation and the determinants of human action are almost always highly complex. (Something which is too often forgotten in criminal sentencing).
  • Given the general possibility of speech resulting in violence, is that possibility a sufficient reason to limit our freedom of speech, even before the actual violence occurs? Yes, but only in very specific cases, namely those cases in which the link between speech and (possible) violence is clear. John Stuart Mill used the example of an excited mob assembled in front of the house of a corn dealer accused of starving the poor. Hate speech in such a setting is likely to lead to violence, while the exact same words printed in an obscure magazine are not. The words in the magazine should be protected by freedom of speech; the words of the mob leaders probably not.
  • Yet even when words should be left free by the law, morality requires of speakers that they consider the possible consequences of speech.
  • Are the events we witnessed recently of the same nature as the words of the mob leaders? And what about similar recent events? I don’t think so. Which means that the people concerned have not abused their freedom of speech.
  • Does that mean that they used their freedom in a good way? No, it doesn’t. Heated rhetoric is almost never the best way to talk, not even for the purposes of the speaker. It doesn’t tend to accomplish a lot or to further anyone’s interests (apart from the interest in getting attention). So those of us who insist on “turning it down a notch” have good reasons to do so. This insistence obviously doesn’t imply curtailment. It’s just a question, and it deals with form rather than content. People are generally too fast to claim their right to free speech when confronted with criticism of the way in which they use or abuse this right. Criticism of speech doesn’t automatically imply the will to prohibit speech, and freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from criticism. Quite the opposite.

More here and here.

Discrimination (3): Libertarianism and Private Discrimination

Prominent libertarian politician Rand Paul recently caused a stir by claiming that he didn’t support parts of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically the parts applying non-discrimination legislation to private businesses. Like most libertarians, he believes that if private restaurant owners, for example, want to prevent blacks from eating there, then that’s their right. Similarly, banks should be allowed not to lend to blacks, real-estate agents not to sell to blacks, private homeowner groups should be able to band together and keep out blacks etc. Same when the targets are Jews, gays, immigrants and so on.

The standard libertarian position is that only government enforced or government protected discrimination is wrong. Private actors should be allowed to discriminate. A private restaurant owner for instance should be allowed to refuse to serve blacks. However, government rules forcing restaurant owners not to serve blacks are not allowed, even though for the blacks in question the results are much the same.

It’s not that most libertarians think this kind of discrimination is acceptable and would engage in it themselves. They reject legislation against private discrimination because they consider the right to private property and the sovereignty of property owners much more important than the fight against private discrimination. They also argue that market mechanisms, which they also like a whole lot, will – over time – weed out such discrimination. A restaurant owner who refuses to serve blacks will do a lot worse than his competitors who are more open minded. He will lose benefits of scale, will have to raise his prices and ultimately also lose the bigoted white customers who detest eating in the presence of blacks but detest even more paying unreasonable prices.

Here’s a good statement of the libertarian position by a self-confessed libertarian:

(1) Private discrimination should, in general, be legal (this includes affirmative action preferences, btw). Many libertarians would make exceptions for cases of monopoly power, and most would ban private discrimination when the government itself ensured the monopoly by law, as with common carriers like trains; (2) The government may not discriminate. If necessary, the federal government should step in to prevent state and local governments from discriminating; (3) The government may not force private parties to discriminate, and the federal government should, if necessary, step in to prevent state and local governments from forcing private parties to discriminate; (4) The government must protect members of minority groups and those who seek to associate with them from private violence. If the state and local government won’t do so, the federal government should step in. (source)

Note the mention of violence in this quote: private violence against blacks isn’t allowed, private discrimination is. Why the difference? Again, property rights. Laws against violence don’t usually violate anyone’s property rights.

Now, what’s the problem with this libertarian position? Property rights are obviously very important. You don’t need to be a libertarian to believe that. I argued strongly in favor of property rights here. Likewise, the free market does an enormous amount of good. The problem with the libertarian view is absolutism and a rejection of value pluralism. There are many values in life, and many different strategies to realize them. And sometimes, some values or strategies come into conflict with each other. When that happens – as is the case here – you have to be willing to balance them and see which one should take precedence. Privacy and free speech, for example, are both important, but what do you do when a journalist exposes the private life of a public figure? You balance the right and wrong: which value is better served by publishing? Free speech or privacy? In some cases, we may believe that free speech is more important than the right to privacy (for example when the politician’s private life has relevance for his functioning). In other cases privacy will trump speech (for example when the facts published have no political meaning). Such decisions can only be taken case by case because the specifics always differ. Doctrinaire and absolutists positions in favor of one value or the other won’t do. And unfortunately many libertarians, and certainly Rand in this case, seem to think that their preferred values – property, freedom and the market – should always have priority over all other values.

Is legislation such as the Civil Rights Act an infringement of property rights and the freedom to do with your property as you want? Of course it is. Are such infringements always wrong? Of course they aren’t. Sometimes they are a necessary evil to gain a greater good.

There a resemblance between the libertarian views on private discrimination and the more widely accepted view in the U.S. that free speech rights and the First Amendment can only be invoked against the government, as if private actors can’t violate people’s right to free speech. The dominant U.S. free speech doctrine reflects an antiquated view of human rights as exclusively vertical. Of course, the government probably does most of the violations, particularly of a right such as free speech, but probably not in the case of the right not to be discriminated against. That’s more of a private monopoly, and markets, protest marches, boycotts, activism etc. won’t solve that problem by themselves. Just look at the market: it didn’t solve segregation, and neither would it have had it been more free. In fact, it’s likely that bigoted white customers who detest eating in the presence of blacks, will not find themselves in white only and hence more expensive restaurants, but will band together and boycott non-segregated restaurants which then lose far more business among whites than they gain from allowing blacks. Such boycotts are absolutely in line with property rights and the free market, which shows that the market can make discrimination worse instead of destroying it. (For a more sympathetic view of the power of the market, go here).

Strangely, Rand Paul himself invoked the parallel between private discrimination and free speech, but twists it to serve his goals:

INTERVIEWER: But under your philosophy, it would be okay for Dr. King not to be served at the counter at Woolworths?

PAUL: I would not go to that Woolworths, and I would stand up in my community and say that it is abhorrent, um, but, the hard part—and this is the hard part about believing in freedom—is, if you believe in the First Amendment, for example—you have too, for example, most good defenders of the First Amendment will believe in abhorrent groups standing up and saying awful things… It’s the same way with other behaviors. In a free society, we will tolerate boorish people, who have abhorrent behavior. (source)

So we have to tolerate discrimination that actually harms real people, just like we tolerate awful speech that most likely doesn’t hurt a fly? Words don’t equal behavior, although sometimes there may be a thin line between them (which is why hate speech laws can sometimes be justified).

Limiting Free Speech (39): From Hate Speech to Hate Crime, the Case of Rwanda

Although I take human rights, and especially freedom of expression, very seriously (I wouldn’t be writing this blog otherwise), I also believe that hate speech can produce hate crime. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. This is called incitement to violence. I do understand the problems with this justification of limits on freedom of speech: it can be abused by those who want to muzzle their opponents. If people react violently to criticism, ridicule or insults, then they may claim – wrongly in my view – that the responsibility for the violent acts lies with those making “incendiary remarks”. You can read my objections against this type of argument here.

Nevertheless, I think there are other cases in which hateful words can turn into hateful crimes. The classic example is Radio Mille Collines, the Rwandan hate radio that called for the extermination of the Tutsi ethnic minority population before and during the 1994 Rwanda Genocide (it infamously swept up the Hutu’s to start a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”):

During the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) broadcast anti-Tutsi propaganda and called for violence against Tutsis, which many experts believe significantly contributed to the violence. An interesting new job-market paper by David Yanagizawa seeks to determine the precise role that RTLM played in the genocide. Yanagizawa relies on “arguably exogenous variation in radio coverage generated by hills in the line-of-sight between radio transmitters and village” to determine the causal effects of RTLM. He finds that RTLM played a significant role in the genocide: full village radio coverage increased violence by 65 percent to 77 percent. The effects are larger in villages with a large Hutu majority and in villages without access to other information sources i.e. villages with lower literacy rates. In total, Yanagizawa calculates that the radio station’s broadcasts explain 45,000 deaths (or 9 percent of the total death toll). (source)

If this is correct, it’s difficult to maintain the doctrinal position that freedom of speech is always and absolutely beneficial and worthy of protection without exception. Unless of course you claim that freedom of speech is more important than the right to life. I refer to an older post on balancing different human rights.

Don’t get me wrong, freedom of speech is absolutely vital, for many different reasons (some as fundamental as thought itself, see here), and no regular reader of this blog can say that I’m ambivalent about it. But what I do object to is the school of thought that believes free speech is the uppermost value, trumping all others in all cases and all circumstances. Maybe this quote from Isaiah Berlin can help to get my point across:

I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments. I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps” — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite — let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. (source)

This description of Berlin’s value pluralism is from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

According to Berlin’s pluralism, genuine values are many, and may—and often do—come into conflict with one another. When two or more values clash, it does not mean that one or another has been misunderstood; nor can it be said, a priori, that any one value is always more important than another. Liberty can conflict with equality or with public order; mercy with justice; love with impartiality and fairness; social and moral commitment with the disinterested pursuit of truth or beauty; … knowledge with happiness; spontaneity and free-spiritedness with dependability and responsibility. Conflicts of values are “an intrinsic, irremovable part of human life”; the idea of total human fulfillment is a chimera. “These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are”; a world in which such conflicts are resolved is not the world we know or understand. … “we are faced with choices between ends equally ultimate, and claims equally absolute, the realisation of some of which must inevitably involve the sacrifice of others”.

The Causes of Poverty (25): The Matthew Effect

The Matthew Effect – a concept invented by sociologist Robert K. Merton – is based on the following extract of the Gospel of Matthew:

For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.

This statement is intuitively convincing. Those who already have economic resources can use these to acquire even more of them, often if not by definition at the expense of those who don’t have them. It’s easy to see how wealthy people have better information to use their wealth in such a way that they can increase it. How they know the right people, how they can use the education system to their advantage (and to the advantage of their offspring), how they can use the political system to their advantage etc. Conversely, poor people are often stuck in a poverty trap: their poverty makes them sick, and their sickness even more poor; their poverty makes it hard to access education, and their lack of education makes them more poor etc.

You can see at once how this is relevant to the issue of human rights. While income or wealth inequality as such isn’t a human rights violation, it does have implications for human rights. And poverty is a human rights violation. But the Matthew Effect can be observed in other human rights as well. Take for instance the wiretapping that is used in the war on terror. Initially, wiretapping is targeted towards individuals who are suspected of plotting an attack. However, it seems inevitable that those who are authorized to use wiretapping expand the field of their authority. Instead of targeted wiretapping, they go on fishing expeditions: throwing out the nets as wide as possible and see which fishes end up in it. They start to use data-mining, for instance, checking private information of entire populations in order to filter out suspect individuals.

Another example of the Matthew Effect in human rights can be found in hate speech laws. The laws may initially impose limits on the freedom of speech that crack down on cases of hate speech that may cause violence and riots. However, once certain exceptions on the freedom of speech are legal and legitimate, the boundaries may move towards more restrictions. Maybe speech that doesn’t pose an imminent threat of violence but perhaps a longterm threat to the stability of a multicultural society – such as derogatory speech, or blasphemous speech – should also be prohibited. And then you may find yourself on a slippery slope.

I can also mention what I called “searchlight human rights violations” (see this previous post): for example, a certain level of sexual violence against women in a particular society, can teach young men a certain culture, mentality and value system that automatically leads to a wider use of violence.

However, I don’t believe things are as simple as this. While the Matthew Effect is certainly a force that is driving human rights violations, I don’t think there is anything inevitable or mechanical about it. There are other forces at play as well, and some of them go in the other direction. If that wouldn’t be the case, then the Matthew Effect would have landed us in a place where respect for human rights is non-existent, and would have done so a long time ago.

Regarding the particular case of wealth inequality, a simple application of the Matthew Effect would require a vision of the world with limited resources. And although some – important – resources are indeed limited, others – equally important ones – are not. It’s not because one person receives a good education, that another one must receive less education. And when one person accumulates riches, this can benefit others (his or her employees for example).

Limiting Free Speech (32): Hate Speech in Canada

In Canadian law and jurisprudence, the definition of hate speech as a form of speech that falls outside the protection of the right to free speech, is quite different from the definition in the U.S. And quite different as well from what I personally think is correct. I believe Canada is on the wrong track in this respect, and should move closer to the U.S. view.

In the U.S., the two main Supreme Court cases defining the rules concerning hate speech, are Brandenburg v Ohio and R.A.V. v St Paul. Hate speech in the U.S. can only be punished when it is likely to incite imminent lawless action. This is consistent with my personal view that human rights can be limited solely for the protection of other rights or the rights or others.

In Canada, however, it’s not the likelihood of actual harm than can turn speech into prohibited hate speech. The expression of hatred, irrespective of the possible consequences of this expression, is considered a crime. The content itself is the crime, not where it may lead. Canadian law and jurisprudence (see here for instance) assume that hate speech in itself, independent from its consequences, inflicts harm on a plural and tolerant society. The objective of Canadian hate speech laws is not only the prevention of harm to individuals and their rights, but also the protection of the kind of society Canada wants to be.

Obviously, Canadian society deserves protection, as does tolerance in general. But it’s quite another thing to claim that this protection requires content-based hate speech laws. I don’t think content as such should ever be the sole test of whether to protect speech or not. The (possible) consequences for the rights of others should be the main criterion, together with intent.

Limiting Free Speech (29): Cross Burning

Cross burning is a typically, if not uniquely American type of “speech”. It’s the quintessential expression of hatred of African-Americans. The usual culprits are members of the Ku Klux Klan or KKK (and copycats). Historically, cross burning has been a signal of impending violence and terror. It was often a morbid prelude to lynchings or other acts of racist violence.

Nowadays, cross burnings are relatively rare, and intended to intimidate rather than signal the first step in actual violence. Nevertheless, given the history of cross burning, present-day occurrences understandably continue to instill a real sensation of fear and panic in the intended targets. Which is of course the intention.

The question is: should cross burning be considered as a form of speech that merits the protection of the freedom of speech (the First Amendment in the U.S.), or should it rather be an example of hate speech that can and should be made illegal?

If we focus on the U.S. for the moment, then the leading Supreme Court case is Virginia v Black. This case deals with 2 different criminal cases of people convicted for cross burning. In one case, an argument escalated and two defendants burned a cross in the front yard of their African-American neighbor. The other case involved a cross being burned in the garden of a member of the KKK during a private KKK “party”. The burning cross, however, could be seen by the general public.

Virgina v Black protects cross burning as a form of free speech, but also provides the possibility to make it illegal under certain circumstances (as we’ve seen many times before in this blog series on limiting freedom of speech, the circumstances are always important). And, according to Virgina v Black, the circumstances which would make it possible to restrict freedom of speech in the case of cross burning are not limited to those which can normally restrict freedom of speech in other cases. Speech acts that produce an imminent danger of physical violence, acts that result in reckless endangerment (in this case the risk that the act evolves into an arson attack), or speech acts that lead to trespassing are not protected by the First Amendment. Physical violence, arson and trespassing are illegal, and the fact that they are combined with a speech act doesn’t make them legal. If a speech act is combined with such illegal acts, or is likely to lead to such acts, then the speech acts are not protected by the right to free speech.

According to Virgina v Black, the circumstances which can make cross burning illegal go beyond this and include the intent of the speaker to intimidate and terrorize specific and identifiable persons, even if these persons are not in immediate physical danger. And cross burnings today usually doesn’t result in physical danger.

Now, you could say that cross burning is by definition intended to intimidate, but that’s not the case. Not all cross burnings are intended to intimidate – take the example of the KKK party cited above – and not all cross burnings are equally intimidating. It depends on the circumstances in which the cross burning takes place, and on the fact if it is clearly targeted against certain individuals. If the cross burning takes place close to the homes of African-Americans, and are part of a long chain of intimidation and racist incidents, then they are more intimidating than in other cases. And more intimidating means a higher risk that the rights of the targets will be violated. The African-Americans may feel forced to move, which violates their right to freely choose their residence. They may feel that it is necessary to keep their children away from school, which is a violation of their right to education, etc. In such cases, the right to free speech of the KKK members should obviously be restricted for the benefit of the rights of their targets. But in other cases, they may be allowed to wallow in their silly hobby.

I think Virginia v Black strikes the right balance. For another Supreme Court case on cross burning, see here.

Limiting Free Speech (28): Free Speech at Work

Should people be allowed to enjoy an unlimited right to free speech at work, and be able to ask courts to undo measures (such as sacking or disciplinary measures) which their employer has taken against them as a result of their speech? Or do corporations and government agencies have a right to take measures against employees engaging in certain types of speech, a right which therefore trumps the right to speech? And is there a difference between the rights of corporations and the rights of (certain) government agencies?

I could make this brief, and say that employees are citizens like all other citizens, and should have a right to free speech. I could say that, if there are any possible and acceptable (or necessary) limitations on the right to free speech, they have nothing to do with the fact that those engaging in speech act as employees or as citizens. I could say that the place where people speak – at work or elsewhere – doesn’t change anything.

Unfortunately, I can’t. The place where speech takes place does matter, as I have mentioned already in the case of hate speech (hate speech in front of an angry mob gathered at the house of a pedophile is different from the exact same speech written down in a book almost no one reads).

As I will argue, the same is true in the current case. Speech at work may be treated in another way than speech elsewhere. There are some good reasons to impose stricter limits on speech at work than on speech in general. Employers therefore also have the right to take certain measures against employees engaging in speech which may be restricted (in fact, these measures are the restrictions). Also, certain government agencies can impose more and wider restrictions than private corporations. All these restrictions on the freedom of speech are possible because they are necessary for the protection of other rights or the rights of others (I try to make this a general rule when discussing restrictions on human rights, see here).

But before I argue this, I want to sketch the baseline first. Free speech is very important, and I don’t think there are many people who believe this more than me (as any regular reader of this blog knows). As government agencies, but also private corporations, regularly violate human rights, free speech at work is perhaps even more important than free speech in general. People working for agencies or corporations engaged in rights violations, must have the right (and the possibility) to denounce these practices. So, if I argue for the right of corporations and agencies to restrict, in certain cases, the right to free speech of their employees, I have to be careful to do so without jeopardizing the important rights of whistleblowers.

The U.S. Supreme Court, which allows government agencies to limit the freedom of speech of their employees, also acknowledges the importance of whistleblowers. When the speech in question is of “public concern”,* the Court uses a higher threshold to uphold speech-related disciplinary measures against employees. (The Court uses the so-called Pickering test). (However, the Supreme Court is still oddly restrictive in this respect. Whereas, normally, free speech is considered to be very important by the Court, in case of speech at work, “public concern” is not enough to uphold the right to speech. It’s just a first threshold to be passed for the Court to asses the possibility of reviewing disciplinary action. When there is no “public concern”, there’s no right to free speech at work according to SCOTUS!).

Now, when and why should the rights of corporations and government agencies to sanction their employees for acts of speech, take precedence over the right to free speech of these employees? Corporations and agencies have a right to function without disruption. A government agency even has a duty to function without disruption, because it serves the public interest. And this interest more often than not includes certain human rights. For example, a government hospital has a duty to protect the healthcare rights of citizens. If speech acts at the hospital disrupt its normal functioning, the rights of citizens may be put at risk. If, in addition, these speech acts don’t have anything to do with the functioning or organization of the hospital, it is difficult to see why they should be more important than the rights of patients. However, if the speech acts uncover serious incompetence at the hospital, the disruption that follows these acts may be a price that is worth paying.

Regarding corporations, the burden of proof on those wishing to impose restrictions on speech at work, is heavier. Corporations usually don’t work for the protection of human rights of citizens, and therefore cannot put these rights in the balance. However, corporations are the property of certain citizens, and these citizens have a right to use this property. Speech acts in corporations can result in disturbances of a kind that makes this use of property difficult or impossible. If, in addition, these speech acts don’t serve any public purpose or address a public concern, it may be justified to consider the right to property more important than the right to speech, in certain cases. For example, should we really accept and protect flag burning during office hours and in office buildings? And who would take sides with an employee wasting huge amounts of company time on frivolous speech?

And there’s another problem with judicial protection of speech at work. Employees may claim that disciplinary measures taken against them (including dismissal) were based on their speech acts, whereas in reality these measures were based on a lack of performance. Employers may become unwilling to take such measures because of the risk of costly litigation. Outspoken but incompetent employees will then be privileged, and others discriminated. Another result: the employer’s authority and ability to organize and lead are put at risk if many of her decisions can be reversed by judges.

* This “public concern” usually means that the speech in question should have something to do with the preferable manner of operating the agency, or should contain information which is vital to proper decision-making. Both definitions of “public concern” cover the activities of whistle-blowers.

Terrorism and Human Rights (18): Right-Wing Terrorism in the U.S., and the Shared Responsibility of Conservative Media

Only days after the attack on Dr. Tiller, the U.S. is shocked by yet another terrorist attack by a right-wing extremist, this time at the Holocaust Museum in Washington. Some have questioned the role of the media in all this. It’s true that parts of the U.S. media, especially on the conservative side, are not characterized by nuanced analysis and balanced reporting. There’s a lot of hate speech, stereotyping and shouting on cable news, on the radio and on the internet. So it’s fair to say that there may be a risk that the media are fanning and nurturing extremism and hate in society, and that they may be responsible for pushing sick people over the edge. (See also here).

I personally regret the lack of quality in the media, and I do believe that journalists and pundits should be more careful in what they say and how they say it. But I also believe that critics of the media should be careful when deciding responsibilities and causal relationships. Society is complex, and people are driven by many factors. Still, most people are ultimately responsible for their own acts (I don’t know enough about the two cases at hand to conclude that the mental condition of the perpetrators at the time of the crime was such that they could be held criminally responsible).

We run the risk that these terrorist events will lead to calls for a more restrictive interpretation of the freedom of speech of the media. Let’s hope that this risk incites the media to question their behavior and to abandon the language of hate.

Hate (5): Why Do We Need Hate Crime Laws?

We punish the crimes of murder, kidnap, and battery. Why isn’t that enough? … It strikes me as weird that the mere utterance of a racial slur during a violent act automatically makes it worse. Ta-Nehisi Coates (source, part of this quote is actually Coates citing someone else)

Doesn’t the concept of hate crime imply a punishment of expression and thought? And isn’t it therefore essentially a thought-crime, and as such objectionable to people who cherish freedom of thought and speech? Shouldn’t someone’s convictions and expressions be immaterial to their punishment? And shouldn’t we just focus on what someone did rather than what he or she was thinking or saying when he or she did it?

Not really. Intent, motive and state of mind have always been crucial to punishment, hence the difference between premeditated murder and manslaughter. Killing or hurting someone because of race, gender or sexual orientation is worse than mere killing or hurting, and should incur a more severe punishment because it is meant not only to harm the victim but to terrorize an entire community.

Limiting Free Speech (25): Does Freedom of Religion Require Limits on Freedom of Speech?

The UN Human Rights Council recently passed a Resolution on Religious Defamation. The main concern of the drafters of this resolution is islamophobia, defamation of Muslims, negative stereotyping of Muslims and Islam, and intolerance and discrimination against Muslims. The main targets are, obviously, western societies where, it is believed, “terrorism hysteria” has caused widespread anti-Muslim feelings.

Of course, no one should accept discrimination and intolerance, and even less islamophobic acts of violence. If there is discrimination and violence, then these human rights violations should be countered, wherever they occur, in the West and elsewhere. However, trying to outlaw defamation and stereotyping is a lot more controversial. While such acts are certainly not helpful in any circumstances, it’s not beyond doubt that they are harmful in themselves or that they are the single most important cause of more harmful acts, such as discrimination and violence.

For the proponents of the resolution, this is beyond doubt. Defamation, stereotyping, derogatory speech, blasphemy etc. are all believed to be harmful enough to justify limiting freedom of speech. The resolution clearly proposes such limits. It talks about

the need, in all societies, to show sensitivity and responsibility in treating issues of special significance for the adherents of any particular faith.

The “provocative or regrettable incidents” it mentions are clearly but not explicitly instances of speech rather than the very rare cases of actual violence and discrimination against western Muslims, namely the Danish Muhammad cartoons, the remarks by Pope Benedict, the Rushdie affair, the attempts of some to equate Islam with terrorism etc. The resolution urges

States to take actions to prohibit the dissemination of… material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitute incitement to racial and religious hatred, hostility or violence,

and says that

respect of religions and their protection from contempt is an essential element conducive for the exercise by all of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

So in these statements, there are two distinct attempts to justify limits on speech that defames and stereotypes Islam:

  1. The first justification is that such speech is hate speech and speech that incites violence and discrimination.
  2. The second is that it restricts the freedom of religion of its targets.

I dealt with the first one before, in this post (where I argued for a very limited possibility to restrict hate speech), so here I’ll focus on the second one. Of course, the second one can collapse into the first one, if the restriction of freedom of religion is supposed to follow from acts of violence that are caused by speech. Acts of violence can indeed restrict freedom of religion, but this argument isn’t valid in the case of Muslims in the West, who have only very rarely been subjected to islamophobic violence and who therefore cannot claim that hate speech and the resulting violence restrict their freedom of religion. If anything, Muslims have more religious freedom in the West than in many Muslim countries.

So something more is meant by the second justification of limits on freedom of speech. It’s not, however, clear what exactly is meant. I haven’t been able to find examples, given by proponents of the resolution, of ways in which speech can restrict an individual’s freedom of religion. These proponents don’t get any further than the general claim that freedom of religion requires laws against defamation, and most likely also blasphemy, and corresponding limitations of free speech.

The question here, of course, is whether freedom of speech can in any way restrict the freedom of religion. If that is the case, then a trade-off has to be made as in all cases in which different human rights come into conflict. But I don’t think that is the case. On the contrary. Freedom of speech is an essential safeguard for freedom of religion.

Now, let’s suppose that there exists, somewhere, a good argument linking defamatory speech and restrictions of freedom of religion, but that I’m just not aware of it (yet). The problem is that, even if defamatory speech can in some obscure way limit someone’s freedom of religion, it doesn’t necessarily follow that in such a case freedom of religion should automatically take precedence over freedom of speech. When two rights come into conflict, it’s often very difficult to decide which one has priority.

Another problem with this undiscovered argument is the vagueness of “defamatory”. Defamation, according to Wikipedia, means the following:

In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel (for written publications), slander (for spoken word), and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. It is usually, but not always, a requirement that this claim be false and that the publication is communicated to someone other than the person defamed (the claimant).

Defamation – also libel or slander – is the offense of bringing a person into undeserved disrepute by making false statements. (I already discussed the relationship between free speech and defamation or libel here).

This definition, however, doesn’t help a lot because it doesn’t make clear what is or is not supposed to be considered as defamatory. What is defamatory differs from one person to another. And this vagueness of the concept may have far-reaching consequences. Suppose we agree that there are good reasons to restrict defamatory speech for the sake of freedom of religion. Is it not likely that those who have to enforce these legal restrictions will be tempted to use them to stifle legitimate criticism of religion instead of real defamation? Where is the border between defamation and criticism? Or between defamation and alternative, non-official interpretations of a religion? I guess that there will be a rapid transition from concerns about religious freedom to their exact opposite, namely policies to punish heresy, blasphemy and apostasy, and to criminalize dissent in general. It’s not defamation of religion that harms but the measures taken to defend religions from defamation – or, better, the measures that are claimed to be taken in defense or religion, but more often than not are taken in defense of power.

Limiting Free Speech (20): Flag Burning and Flag Desecration

Flag burning (or other types of desecration of national flags) is a form of speech. It may not be a very refined or profound expression of opinions or ideas, but it is an expression nevertheless. Flag burning expresses disgust and hatred for a certain country or a country’s government and policies. It’s typically a very emotional form of speech, devoid of rational argument and reduced to simplistic slogans, and most often used in a setting of mass protest.

Given that it is a form of speech, it should, a priori, enjoy the protection of the right to free speech. However, in certain exceptional circumstances there’s a rationale for prohibiting it. It is a form of hate speech, and the rules governing limitations of hate speech apply here as well. In a nutshell: hate speech can be prohibited when it incites violence.

Now, it’s not impossible to imagine cases where flag burning can incite violence (burning the flag of Israel in front of a surrounded Jewish enclave when a pogrom is imminent, for example), but I guess that most cases of flag burning are much less harmful. So a general law forbidding flag burning doesn’t seem justifiable. There have been several attempts in the U.S. Congress to vote for an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to allow a ban on flag burning:

On June 27, 2006, the most recent attempt to pass a ban on flag burning was rejected by the Senate in a close vote of 66 in favor, 34 opposed, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed to send the amendment to be voted on by the states. (source)

Much of this is of course political posturing of politicians trying to be the most patriotic. Given the rarity of flag burning in the U.S., it’s also a typical example of a solution in search of a problem.

Those who would burn the flag destroy the symbol of freedom, but amending the Constitution would destroy part of freedom itself. Richard Savage (source)

The fact that patriotic people are offended by flag burning isn’t a sufficient reason to ban it. (I’ve argued here against a right not to be offended).

Limiting Free Speech (16): Fighting Words

Fighting words are written or spoken words expressed to incite violence. This is related to the topic of hate speech, but it isn’t quite the same thing. Hate speech isn’t necessarily intended to incite violence (just simple hate in some cases).

In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (in 1942), the U.S. Supreme Court decided that “fighting words”, words that tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace, are among the

well-defined and narrowly limited classes of speech [which] the prevention and punishment of have never been thought to raise any constitutional problem. These include the lewd and obscene, the profane, the libelous, and the insulting or “fighting” words those which by their very utterance inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace.

Speech that merely causes anger, offense, insult or outrage does not amount to fighting words. Fighting words must present an actual threat of immediate violence or must “reasonably incite the average person to retaliate.”

It’s not true that certain words inevitably provoke violent reactions by individuals. Rather, one should take into account the context in which the words were uttered, not merely the content of the words themselves.

Given the rules for limiting free speech described in this post, the case of fighting words is rather simple. Inciting violence leads to violations of individual rights to security and bodily integrity, and in many cases these rights should take precedence over the right to free speech. It seems difficult to accept that hurting someone is a lesser evil than limiting someone’s right to speak and threaten.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (10): Prejudice According to Allport’s Scale

People who are aware of, and ashamed of, their prejudices are well on the road to eliminating them. Gordon Allport

Gordon Allport, a psychologist, created Allport’s Scale in 1954. It’s a measure of the manifestation of prejudice in a society. The scale contains 5 stages of prejudice, ranked by the increasing harm they produce.

Stage 1: antilocution

Antilocution (“speaking against”) means making jokes about another group,’a0but also’a0the expression of hateful opinions. In the former case it’s also called derogatory speech, and in the latter case it’s called hate speech. Both cases can be examples of prejudice, prejudice in the sense of an opinion reflecting negative stereotypes and negative images based on preconceived judgments rather than facts.

Antilocution is often believed to be harmless (“sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you”), but it can harm the self-esteem of the people of the targeted group, and it can clear the way for more harmful forms of prejudice. The line between violent words and violent acts is often very thin. The self-image of a group can be hurt, which can sometimes become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Stage 2: avoidance

People in a group are actively avoided by members of another group. Harm is done through isolation and by preparing the way for more harmful acts. Xenophobia, or the fear of foreigners or strangers or of that which is foreign or strange, results in exclusion.

Stage 3: discrimination

A group is discriminated against by denying them equal access to opportunities, goods and services. Discrimination is intended to harm a group by preventing it from achieving goals, getting education or jobs, etc.

Stage 3b (added later): subtle aggression

This is an assumption of hierarchy, particularly hierarchy of power, an assumption that somebody has less knowledge because of their age, gender or race or other characteristics and that these people can be excluded in some way.

Stage 4: physical attack

This has become known as hate crime. Groups are the victim of vandalism, the burning of property or violent attacks on someone’s physical integrity such as lynchings, pogroms etc.

Stage 5: extermination

The extermination of a group through genocide, ethnic cleansing etc.

Limiting Free Speech (4): Derogatory Speech

In this series, I examine the possibility of limiting certain kinds of speech, and especially the possibility of legal limits. As stated in the introductory post in this series, such limits are possible but should be exceptional given the importance of the freedom of speech.

So-called derogatory speech is a form of speech which expresses ridicule, mockery, contempt or derision. It is a disparaging kind of speech that often takes the form of cartoons, caricatures, pamphlets, comedy shows, outright insults etc.

The main justification for limiting free speech is the possibility that speech violates others people’ s rights. When I claimed that limits are justified in the case of holocaust denial and hate speech, I did so because I believe that these kinds of speech can violate rights, and when rights come into conflict, a balance should be found and one right has to give way for the other. In some cases, limiting the right to free speech of holocaust deniers or hate preachers is a lesser harm than the harm that would be done if they were allowed to speak.

In the case of derogatory speech I think this is not the case. Derogatory speech is often silly, sad and pathetic, but the only harm it does is the insult suffered by the target, or perhaps a feeling of dishonor and a loss of self-esteem. People should be able to live with insults and there are no rights to protect self-esteem or honor. The reason we have a right to free speech is to protect speech that causes offense. Inoffensive speech hardly needs protection.

But is it really true that insult is the only harm produced by derogatory speech? One could argue that derogatory speech causes other kinds of harm. It perpetuates negative stereotypes of certain minority groups in society, groups which are already relatively vulnerable. Or it devalues the collective image of the group, thereby deepening social divisions and increasing the risk of discrimination. It may also erode the capacity of the majority culture to be receptive of new identities or communities. Tolerance may suffer.

Moreover, derogatory speech makes it more difficult to have a rational debate on important subjects. It poisons the debate. Neither the Muhammad cartoons, for example, nor the subsequent reactions from parts of the Muslim community did anything to foster the debate on the multicultural society. Ridicule, just as threats of violence, kill the discussion.

John Rawls reminded us that free speech should contribute to rational debate. The purpose of speech is to convince, to examine arguments, to revise one’ s opinions in the light of as much information as possible, to submit one’ s opinions to a critical public etc. Neither ridicule nor threats can advance such a vision of debate. (source)

All this is undoubtedly true, but is it enough to prohibit derogatory speech? I don’t think so. The best defense against harmful speech is either counter-speech or simple disregard. If we start to prohibit insulting speech, we take the slippery slope: anything can be insulting.

Limiting Free Speech (3): Hate Speech

Hate speech (or antilocution, or fighting words) is speech that incites other people to hate a certain group in society defined by common characteristics (race, gender, religion etc.). It usually also incites to commit violence and discrimination based on hatred.

The most famous case is that of the Danish Muhammad cartoons. These cartoons led to worldwide protest and expressions of anger and hate, not only against the cartoonists in question, their newspaper or their country, but against liberals and democrats in general.

However, hate speech is by no means an exclusively Muslim matter. It can be found everywhere where there is hate: it can be racist, anti-gay, islamophobe, etc. It can also be framed in anti-terrorist language: many western countries have initiated legislation outlawing hate speech that is part of Muslim mobilization of terrorists (in militant mosques for example).

Given the importance of freedom of expression, it is not universally accepted that hate speech can be legally prohibited. There is of course article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which outlaws hate speech:

Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence shall be prohibited by law.

However, contrary to hate crimes, such as attack on gays or muslims or writers/movie makers/cartoonists critical of Islam etc., the basic rule should be that speech as such is not a crime, even speech expressing or inciting hatred, violence or discrimination. Speech is protected by the right to free speech.

However, this right, like many human rights, is not absolute and can be limited when it endangers other human rights (like the right to life and bodily integrity, the right not to suffer discrimination etc.). The general defense of hateful speech has therefore some exceptions. It’s a thin line between hateful words and hateful actions. Impressionable people can be led to violent crimes by hate speech. Hate is taught. The example of the Muhammad cartoons protests is again telling in this respect. Many protesters were encouraged by some Muslim leaders to commit acts of violence.

But much depends on the circumstances, the context and the manner of speech. Islamophobia in front of a crowded mosque is obviously not the same thing as islamophobia in an obscure publication. Examples of speech, in the wider sense of the word, such as hanging a noose in a tree in the front yard of the house of an African-American family, or spraying graffiti on someone’s car or house, are more of a problem than posting a picture of a Koran in the toilet on a blog or a website. The first examples are clearly intimidation and can force people to sell their houses and move somewhere else. This has human rights implications (freedom of residence and property rights), which the latter examples don’t have (it’s difficult to argue that a photo of the Koran in a toilet, although undoubtedly an expression of hatred, harms anyone’s freedom of religion).

When speech has implications for the rights of some people, it is legitimate to consider limiting this speech, according to the rules set out in the introductory post of this series.

An important distinction here: all this is about hate, not about speech that is merely offensive, insulting, ridiculing etc. That’s the topic of another post. The distinction, however, can be blurred. What is hateful and what is merely offensive is a matter of personal conviction, it differs between groups and it changes over time. Some groups may be more sensitive than others. If one decides to legislate the matter, this can complicate things.

Moreover, what to someone can be seen as hate – for example homophobia – may be a central tenet of someone else’s religion and therefore protected by the freedom of religion. However, the freedom of religion is not absolute either.

And finally, some examples of speech that were once considered to be hateful – such as “nigger” – have been reclaimed by the groups that were previously targeted, and are sometimes even used as a badge of pride.

Another distinction: it is perhaps possible to imagine hate speech that is not directly or indirectly inciting violence and/or discrimination. Obviously, this kind of hate speech is less dangerous. However, like derogatory speech or offensive speech it does create a problem. It perpetuates negative stereotypes, devalues collective identities, deepens social cleavages and conflicts, makes it more difficult for the community to accept new identities, and it makes debate more difficult. So it makes it more difficult to create and uphold a tolerant, diverse society in which there can be civilized debate and discussion leading to better knowledge.

However, is this reason enough for a legal prohibition on hate speech? I don’t think so. Is it reason enough to combat hate speech with other means? Sure. The remedy for harmful speech is not necessarily prohibition but counter-speech, and sometimes it is best to just ignore some kinds of speech. Engaging the hate mongers, let alone prosecuting them, gives them legitimacy, publicity, and under-dog or victim status.

Limiting Free Speech (1): Introduction

I’m a strong defender of human rights in general and of free speech in particular. But I’m also convinced that the system of human rights is not a harmonious whole and that some rights can conflict; some rights may harm other rights, in which case one right has to be limited for the sake of the other. If you feel the urge of yelling “Fire!” in an overcrowded room, this expression of yours will cause panic and will therefore harm the right to life and bodily integrity of the people in the crowd.

This example is taken from a famous quote by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes:

The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic. (source)

I don’t claim that the choice for one right over the other is always as clearcut as in this example. Indeed, it can be a difficult and controversial choice, better left to impartial judges. But those choices have to be made. Here’s a previous post on the limits of human rights. NO OTHER LIMITS on rights are acceptable. Rights can only be limited by and because of other rights, not because of prudishness, political correctness, insult, humiliation or whatever.

This blog series examines some of the existing or proposed limits on the right to free speech, such blasphemy laws, hate speech laws, holocaust denial laws, pornography, derogatory speech laws, libel laws etc.

Free speech is an extremely important human right. You can check out this post on the importance of free speech for thinking and correct thinking according to Kant. In the same post you can find the argument by John Stuart Mill in which he correctly states that permitting the expression of errors or even lies encourages us to revisit the grounds of our own beliefs and thus strengthening those beliefs.

The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error. John Stuart Mill

When we are confronted with opposing and controversial views, we benefit from having to justify our own views.

Given all this, any proposed or existing limitations on free speech should be strongly argued and the benefits of limitations should clearly and not marginally outweigh the harm. Any limit should also be very specific and not general. He or she who proposes a limit should prove that no other measures short of limiting rights can provide the same result. Limits can only be necessary for the protection of other rights or the rights of others. No other reasons are valid.

When two rights come into conflict, and a decision has to be made to limit one or the other right, one can look at the value that is being protected by either right. A journalist’s right to free speech can conflict with a politician’s right to privacy. If the expression by the journalist does not serve any important value, such as accountability, exposure of corruption etc. then the decision will be in favor of the right to privacy. If, on the other hand, the politician is corrupt, his privacy will be outweighed by the public interest of having a political class that does not engage in corruption.

When proposing a limit on rights, one should also be aware of the fact that this will probably not be enough to solve the problem that one is facing. Making the use of a right in a certain way a criminal act is not always enough to make that use go away. Racism, for example, will not disappear by making racists who engage in hate speech shut up. The underdog effect may even make them stronger. One should also try to do something about the causes of racism (poverty, education, etc.). The suppression of those who use rights against rights must be combined with the identification and elimination of the reasons why these people use rights against rights. Healing the symptoms but not the disease is inefficient, but some symptoms are so bad that something must be done, without losing sight of the causes of the symptoms.

What Are Human Rights? (16): Limited Rights That Need to be Balanced Against Each Other

Genuine tragedies in the world are not conflicts between right and wrong. They are conflicts between two rights. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Some rights can cause violations of other rights or of the rights of others, which is why rights have to be balanced against each other.

In specific instances of rights that come into conflict ’97 for example the right to free speech and the right to privacy ’97 a judgment has to be made about the priority of one right or the other. The decision can be made by a judge, but also by the legislator. There can be laws that limit one right for the sake of another. The phrasing of human rights articles in constitutions and treaties often provides the possibility of such legal limits.

These limits are an almost daily occurrence, even in a perfect system. The system of human rights is not a coherent and harmonious whole.

Libel or expressions of racial hatred, for instance, are often illegal, and with good reason. Expressions of hatred are not only insulting (people should be able to live with insults); they can also lead to discrimination or even physical harm. It is a thin line between aggressive words and aggressive actions.

The problem of course is how to decide between rights. On what grounds do we give priority to one right or the other? Only if we have a rule for this can we distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate limits on rights, or better between limits and violations. Part of the rule could be that some rights are clearly absolute. It seems unacceptable to kill someone, even if doing so would allow us to protect some other right of some other person. Limits on the right to life will then never be legitimate and this right should always have priority and can in turn limit other rights.

However, this rule leaves most problems of conflicts between rights unsolved because most rights are not absolute. One cannot always avoid moral, philosophical and hence contestable reasoning when taking a decision between rights. Some subjective judgment on the harm we would inflict when limiting one right or the other might help. In the case of a journalist who divulges intimate details about the private life of an actor, what would be the harm inflicted on the journalist when we limit his or her right to free speech? Probably less then the harm he or she inflicts when limiting the right to privacy of the actor.

Again, a judgment may not always be as easy as in this example. Deciding between rights remains a difficult matter and one that is better left to professional judges.