ADF Int’l. Lawyer On European Hate Speech Laws: ‘Subjective Feelings' Cannot Be Policed

Joe Setyon | August 3, 2016 | 12:39pm EDT
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Paul Coleman, deputy director of Alliance Defending Freedom International, at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C.


( Paul Coleman, senior counsel and deputy director of Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) International, says that European hate speech laws are based on people’s “subjective feelings,” which cannot be policed.

But their goal is “to silence those who go against the political or cultural orthodoxy of the day.”

“The process is the punishment,” said Coleman, author of Censored – How European Hate Speech Laws are Threatening Freedom of Speech.

Speaking at a Heritage Foundation event in Washington, Coleman, who is British, said that one flawed justification for hate speech laws is that certain speech directly harms other people.  

“The problem with this justification is it is impossible to police. You just can’t police people’s subjective feelings and people’s subjective response to hurt,” he explained.

Coleman pointed out that there are countless hate speech laws, especially in the European Union, which deal with hot button issues that are “clamped down on by the state,” such as Islam, immigration, gay marriage, sexuality and gender identity.

He explained that multiculturalism and establishing a “global village” are valued in European society to the point that those who seek “absolute truth” have to be “put down.”

Hate speech laws have "devastating effects, but it's not necessarily about convictions; it's not necessarily about people being locked up in jail,” said Coleman. Rather, “the process is the punishment in many of these cases.”  

In one case he cited, "you have a conversation that leads to a prosecution that leads to an acquittal, and in the process, a business and a livelihood is destroyed."

Coleman argued that one of the multiple problems with European hate speech laws is the difficulty of even defining hate speech.

“What we find is [that the term] hate speech is vague. It has just a lot of vague synonyms that struggle to define what it means,” Coleman said.

“What one person considers to be hate speech another person certainly wouldn’t consider that to be hate speech, and a lot of the laws are based not on objectively what was said,  but on the subjective response of the hearer.”

Coleman also pointed out that because “words change over time,” hate speech laws force citizens to keep up with specific words in order to know what is and isn’t legal.

But even though the premises of many hate speech cases are “ridiculous,” Coleman points out that “a lot of them are used to silence debate and to silence those who go against the political or cultural orthodoxy of the day.”

Coleman also criticized the rationale that certain speech, even if it is not criminal in and of itself, “will lead to violence.”

He pointed to Germany during the Weimar Republic, the predecessor to Nazi rule, saying that its “primitive forms of hate speech laws” were “absolutely useless at stopping the rise in Nazism.”

According to Coleman, the same logic applies to present-day Europe.

“We are seeing the rise in extremism, we are seeing a rise in violence, we are seeing a rise in terrorist attacks, we are seeing a huge rise in political and societal tension, all of which is in a context of more and more and more criminal restrictions on speech.

“So the narrative, the idea that these laws are somehow helping to stem this is not supported.”

Coleman expressed concern with the trajectory of hate speech laws, pointing out that many Europeans are willing to give up their “freedom of expression” and “civil liberties” because they think that “this is the price we pay for the peace that we have.”

But Coleman noted that hate speech laws are not “static.” At first, they only dealt with race, but were later expanded to include religion, sexual orientation, gender identity and sexism.

Not only is the scope of the laws increasing, but the “threshold of what’s being caught by hate speech laws is getting lower and lower,” while the “means of restricting speech” is expanding, he said.

Coleman concluded by rhetorically asking if these sorts of restrictions on speech could happen in the United States.

“As we look at the course of the last century, as we look at legislation needing to be passed to protect the First Amendment, I think we have to say that it most certainly could happen here,” he said.

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