Hate speech review must not reintroduce blasphemy by another name

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, David Kaye, has told the UN General Assembly that there is no ‘heckler’s veto’ in international human rights law. His Report gives conclusions and recommendations for how States and Companies should approach online hate speech. Some of his key points are:

  • Offline human rights protections must also apply to online speech. There should be no special category of online hate speech for which the penalties are higher than offline.
  • Human Rights law protects individuals and their right to freedom of expression and opinion. Human Rights law does not protect ideas or beliefs from ridicule, abuse, criticism or other ‘attacks’ seen as offensive. Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief systems are incompatible with human rights and in particular the right to freedom of expression.
  • A person advocating a minority or even offensive interpretation of a religious tenet or historical event is not to be silenced. This type of expression is to be protected by the State even if the State disagrees with or is offended by the expression.
  • Restrictions on the right to freedom of expression must be exceptional, and it is the State that bears the burden of demonstrating their compatibility with human rights law.

As part of reviewing the legislation on hate speech, the Department of Justice and Equality is consulting the public about how Ireland’s law in this area can be improved. The consultation is part of the review of the Prohibition of Incitement to Hatred Act 1989.

A year after the people of Ireland voted to remove the offence of blasphemy from our Constitution, the Minister for Justice & Equality, Charlie Flanagan, must ensure that the review does not reintroduce blasphemy by another name.

Any change to our law on hate speech should protect people not beliefs, should ensure the compatibility of human rights such as freedom of conscience, religion and belief with the right to freedom of expression.

You can find the Department’s call for submissions here.

In a world of rising calls for limits on ‘hate speech,’ international human rights law provides standards to govern State and company approaches to online expression. The United Nations Special rapporteur’s report explains how those standards provide a framework for governments considering regulatory options and companies determining how to respect human rights online.

The report begins with an introduction to the international legal framework, focusing on UN treaties and the leading interpretations of provisions related to what is colloquially called ‘hate speech’. It then highlights key State obligations and addresses how company content moderation may respect the human rights of users and the public.

The report concludes with recommendations for States and companies. The recommendation section begins:

“International human rights law should be understood as a critical framework for the protection and respect of human rights when combatting hateful, offensive, dangerous or disfavoured speech. Online ‘hate speech’, the broad category of expression described in this report, can result in deleterious outcomes.

When the phrase is abused, it can provide ill-intentioned States with a tool to punish and restrict speech that is entirely legitimate and even necessary in rights-respecting societies.

But some kinds of expression can cause real harm. It can intimidate vulnerable communities into silence, particularly when it involves advocacy of hatred that constitutes incitement to hostility, discrimination, or violence. Left unchecked and viral, it can create an environment that undermines public debate and can harm even those who are not users of the subject platform.

It is thus important that States and companies address the problems of hate speech with a determination to protect those at risk of being silenced and to promote open and rigorous debate on even the most sensitive issues in the public interest.”

You can download the Special Rapporteur’s Report here.

Atheist Ireland

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