Report of the discussion “Freedom of Speech vs Hate Speech”

At the first night of The Hague Freedom Book Fair, on 24th of February, a passionate and controversial discussion on the relationship between freedom of speech and hate speech was held. The panel consisted of Paul Cliteur (Professor of Philosophy of Law at Leiden university), Marloes van Noorloos (Assistant Professor and hate speech expert at Tilburg University) and Leon Willems (director of Free Press Unlimited).

First of all, the speakers gave speeches that included an overview of themselves and the topic in general. Paul Cliteur introduced the Dutch legislation regarding hate speech and stated that the core problem with free speech in contemporary world is the incitement to violence on the basis what people believe, have said etc. He also raised the question what has to be done. We have to promote tolerance and learn to live in a world where people have fundamentally different ideas. Problems should be discussed openly in a way of dialogue.

Marloes van Noorloos tried to explain the real meaning of hate speech. According to her, the power relation between groups should be taken in account while defining hate speech. It is not just an objective criticism. It is a speech against people, not against a religion or an ideology. This difference can be hard to make, but it is necessary to do it. Even though we have the right to freedom of expression, hate speech should be prohibited. But there should always be a good reason to criminalize a certain speech. The reason for criminalizing hate speech is the negative imagining. If you constantly spread negative information about a certain group then it may result in violence and discrimination. Hate speech laws are meant to protect the powerless minority groups against powerful groups. It is very difficult to say what is powerless and what is powerless group. For instance, Muslims are so diverse – some leaders within religion might be very powerful, but it does not mean that everyone is. Freedom of expression is the marketplace for ideas and should be as open as possible.

Leon Willems presented some pragmatic observations from his work. The freedom of expression is an inalienable human right, but the protection of it through the courts can take many years. He addressed the question of dissent. Dissent is deeply rooted in the Dutch society, because it is multicultural and people have the right to have different thoughts. The dissent is the decision to disagree, but still respect other person’s opinion. And this is a very big problem nowadays in many places. He emphasized that words do cause violence and harm people, but violence is not the necessary outcome of a debate. Once violence starts, it creates trauma and breeds violence.

After the speeches a very passionate discussion started. One problem brought up against freedom expression in the current world was religious fundamentalism. By Paul Cliteur it was seen as one of the biggest challenges and a major threat we face right now. There is a need of more religious criticism, critical analysis of the fundamental dogmas of the world religions. For instance, Catholic church used to have severe sanctions, now such sanctions are more prominent in the Muslim world. In the history courageous people have challenged the problems of Catholic church. Therefore, nowadays we have to help free thinkers in problematic societies.

The audience referred that the panelists forgot to define Islamic fundamentalism before addressing the problem. The person stating this considers herself an Islamic fundamentalist and for her it means going back to the fundamentals of Islam. It was of course a misunderstanding between the panelists and the audience, because the panelists found that in Islamic fundamentalism everything is accepted what god commands. If god commands death, it is justified. But this causes constant danger to the society in general. Leon Willems noted that even if you go back to the fundamentals, you still have to do it with critical mind.

By the audience it was also criticized that the problem of the current discussion and also in Dutch society is that people tend to generalize and concentrate only on the extreme forms of Islam.

Last but not least, the solutions to hate speech were discussed. Problematic societies should move towards a society where different opinions are peacefully spread, but where also critical thinking exists. There has to be exchange of thought and debate about problems. The Netherlands is a good example of a very productive society with different opinions.

Leon Willems addressed the problem of dissent and stated that we should have movement against Facebook and ask them to get things in order. Facebook is making profit over free content and is spreading hate. It is not being corrected.

Marloes van Noorloos stated that all people should realize that freedom of expression is also important for these persons we do not agree with. Very often people call it out only for their own opinion, but not for others. Leon Willems agreed that the true meaning of freedom of speech comes also with respect and with the space for critical thinking of minorities. This space for critical thinking is shrinking everywhere in the world.

In conclusion, it was agreed by everyone that the solution against hate speech is more speech. Law is not the best way to deal with hate speech and legal solution should be the last resort. It does not only mean a friendly discussion, but also a critical debate where people do not agree with each other, but still respect each other’s opinions.

Photo’s: Ugo Boss Photography ©


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