“I Believe in Freedom of Expression, but…”

Freedom of expression correlates with better protection of human rights, higher GDP, less violence, and lower corruption.

The period between 1980 and 2003 was characterized by an unprecedented development towards democracy, strong institutions, and acknowledgment of human rights. Thus, dictators and authoritarian leaders around world loosened their iron grip on the press and citizens’ right “to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience,” as put forward by English poet John Milton in 1644.

Since 2003, however, freedom of expression has suffered multifarious limitations. According to Freedom House, only 13 percent of the world’s population enjoys a free press. Ignited in 2004, the global decline in press freedom has spread like a wildfire, and the number of countries with a free press has decreased by 10 percentage points. Concurrently, well-established democracies are calling for desperate measures to deal with the predicament of balancing civil liberties and national security. To make things worse, guarding against fake news and an emerging demand for shielding minorities against hate speech are gaining support.

On a global basis, the support for freedom of speech is relatively high. People generally consider it a fundamental right to criticize governments and politicians, but when it comes to minorities, the support for free speech vanishes. For instance, a survey conducted by The Varkey Foundation shows that only 49 percent of “Generation Z” believe that people should have the right to speak offensively to minority groups, while only 46 percent of Europeans think that people should be able to publish statements offensive to minorities.

Does Hate Speech Incite Violence?

The idea that hateful speech incites violence does not prove correct when examined carefully.

Thus, when talking about freedom of expression, it seems like the prevailing attitude translates into: “I believe in freedom of speech, but…” Nevertheless, this unenthusiastic backing for free speech is highly perilous and allows for governments to restrain freedom of expression in several cases. The reason, it appears, is that a majority of people believe that hateful speech incites violence and conflict. Therefore, governments, companies, and organizations must censor offensive speech. Yet, there is no reason to believe that censorship will improve anything.

On the contrary, the idea that hateful speech incites violence does not prove correct when examined carefully. First of all, is it highly doubtful that hateful speech will encourage others to engage in acts of violence simply because they were exposed to hate speech? Individuals are rational and independent, and the idea that offensive words will drive people to act unlawfully because of offensive words is fallacious. On the other hand, it is likely that hate speech will provoke feelings in people who are already willing to engage in criminal conduct.

Evidence from Rwanda shows that there is not much reason to believe that people are incited to act violently merely because of hate speech. The study finds no significant effect from the state-led Radio Rwanda which propagated hateful messages about the persecuted Tutsis. Another study shows similar results. The author finds that many of the convicted perpetrators of the genocide did not listen to Radio Rwanda.

Censorship: The Path to More Hate?

If, however, we accept that various precautions and curtailments are necessary to preserve diversity and a flourishing democracy, what would the consequences be?

By silencing radical and dissenting viewpoints, European states have fostered an environment of discontent among the silenced.

Restricting freedom of speech in order to protect minorities has already been attempted in several countries. The effects from Europe have, in large, been arbitrary convictions and persecution of offensive statements aimed at people criticizing Islam. Moreover, by silencing radical and dissenting viewpoints, European states have fostered an environment of discontent among the silenced. By legally prosecuting “wrong” viewpoints, extremists will consider themselves as minorities persecuted by an elite. This is backed by a study on right-wing terrorism in which the author concludes that public repression might have fueled extreme right violence.

On a smaller scale, various online platforms have already implemented censorship in order to protect minorities from offensive speech. The results yielded by such efforts seems, however, to be small, if not counterproductive. For instance, Reddit launched a ban on two subreddits particularly known for their offensive language and hateful content. When Reddit decided to ban r/fatpeoplehate and r/CoonTown in 2015, Reddit indeed achieved their objective. But what about the overall effect of the ban? A 2017 study shows that while Reddit did reduce controversial content, people simply fled to other sites to publish hateful content. This resonates with results from a UNESCO study indicating that banning “trolls” will just make them show up elsewhere.

Why Freedom of Expression Matters

Our observations undertaken here suggest that silencing hateful speech—regardless of the measures—is often unsuccessful or even counterproductive. On this background, we should remember why freedom of expression is so important and why we should cherish this freedom.

For, as numerous scholars have shown, freedom of expression correlates with better protection of human rights, higher GDP, less violence and lower corruption. Finally, repression of freedom of speech has—in a historical perspective—been the most desired instrument for governments and dictators around the world to retain impoverished people in obedience.

Further Reading

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