TOPIC GUIDE: Hate Speech

"Extreme views should not be given a public platform"

PUBLISHED: 01 Aug 2013

AUTHOR: Anwar Oduro-Kwarteng & Jason Smith

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INTRODUCTION

Voltaire, the Enlightenment thinker, is associated with the sentiment that ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. However, new developments in everything from the rise of extremism and online hate speech have led to a rethinking of this argument. For example, recent incidents such as the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich, south east London, by radicalised extremists, together with the rise of allegedly extremist anti-Islamic groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) has led some to conclude that as a society we need to reassess our ideas about free speech [ref: Huffington Post].  There was widespread uproar when alleged extremists Tommy Robinson, leader of the EDL, and Muslim cleric Anjem Choudary, were interviewed by the BBC and on other media outlets in the wake of the Woolwich murder [Ref: Telegraph]. Much of the debate has centred on the issue of hateful and offensive speech, and the extent to which proponents of controversial and unpopular views should be allowed to express their thoughts and ideas in the public domain. Their views, many believe, are too dangerous and extreme to just oppose in open debate, and their access to public platforms for their ideas needs to be restricted. Certain types of controversial views, it is argued, are dangerous because of their ability to influence others and therefore should not be given a public platform, whether that platform is a mosque, a student union, or the media [Ref: Huffington Post]. Whilst many are loath to curtail freedom of speech, some have pointed to instances where the freedom to express offensive and extreme views publically has had directly negative consequences for society [Ref: Telegraph]. Should the right to free expression extend even to those views the majority find abhorrent or distasteful? Or do “We all have a responsibility, including the media, not to give airtime to extremist voices - idiots and nutters who speak for no one but themselves” [Ref: Guardian]?

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Hate Speech DEBATE IN CONTEXT

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Is freedom of speech an absolute?
The liberty to express oneself in the public and private domain has traditionally been seen as one of the pillars of British life. For many, free speech is an absolute right, and the most fundamental element of a democratic and free society. The extent to which one is able to express opinions, irrespective of how unpopular or offensive they may be, is seen as vital to a flourishing, mature and enlightened society [Ref: Telegraph]. Giving people with offensive views a public platform does not legitimise those views, but rather, hearing controversial opinions is a fundamental part of a liberal society it is argued [Ref: Huffington Post]. Allowing the likes of Tommy Robinson, Nick Griffin and Anjem Choudary a platform, means that their views are made public and we all have the chance to scrutinise and discuss them openly [Ref: Independent]. From this perspective we have a responsibility to make sure that distasteful views are heard and challenged as a matter of principle, no matter how unpalatable they may be. However, others argue that giving offensive opinions a public platform gives them legitimacy. They suggest that it is important not to give traction to views which a large majority of the populace find offensive. A recent poll found that 59% of people think that Anjem Choudary should not get a media platform, and 49% thought the same about the EDL [Ref: Mail on Sunday]. In October 2009, Nick Griffin, Member of the European Parliament and leader of the British National Party (BNP) was invited onto the BBC’s ‘Question Time’ programme. His appearance sparked outrage, with many arguing that to allow him a national platform was effectively a propaganda success for an extreme viewpoint that most do not agree with, despite the fact he was an elected representative. One commentator claimed that the BNP had “...officially arrived in the political and media mainstream, aided and abetted by the BBC.” [Ref: New Statesman].

Social cohesion and public protection
Freedom of expression is enshrined in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act of 1998, but critics claim that proponents of offensive views are clever enough to exploit this, stopping short of inciting hatred and violence directly, meaning that technically they are beyond the remit of the law [Ref: The Sunday Times]. In light of this the law needs to be revisited, it’s argued, to ensure that these views are easier to police, and that the public are protected from them, if not through the law then through ‘no platform’, denying then the oxygen of publicty. The public expression of distasteful views has been argued to be detrimental to community cohesion [Ref: The Times]. Community programmes which aim to increase understanding between different racial or faith groups are undermined when individuals are permitted to express controversial, even vile opinions publically because they can lead to tension or violence. The former Minister for Equality, Lynne Featherstone, argued in the Government’s published plan to tackle hate crime that: “Tackling hate crime matters, not just because of the devastating consequences it can have for victims and their families, but also because it can divide communities.” [Ref: HM Government]. Historically there has always been debate about the limits of what one can and cannot say in public. Some argue that it is naive to assume that the right to free speech exists in a vacuum - with freedom comes responsibility and just because you can say anything doesn’t mean you should [Ref: Telegraph]. However, opponents of this argument about protecting the public and communities state that to censure offensive views would be an affront to the intelligence of the public, who through open debate and discussion are more than able to decide to which views they do and do not want to subscribe [Ref: Independent].

Words v actions
Clarifying what type of comments will and will not be prosecuted, most recently in relation to online social networks, the Director of Public Prosecutions has said: “...posts that are offensive will face a rigorous assessment and will only be pursued if it is deemed to be in the public interest.” [Ref: Our Social Times]. Others counter that: “The problem with hate crime as a category: it allows the state to prosecute people on the basis of their thoughts, not their actions. Like George Orwell’s notion of ‘thought crime’, hate crime allows the authorities to police what’s in people’s heads.” [Ref: spiked]. Others would counter that such arguments for free speech condone hate speech and lead to the intimidation and the further oppression of women, religious and ethnic minorities and vulnerable groups in society. We already have libel laws and bans on child pornography, so why not on speech that takes away a person’s dignity and leads to unnecessary social tension? [Ref: Huffington Post].

ESSENTIAL READING

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

IN DEPTH

Without free speech, this island seethes with resentment

Padraig Reidy Guardian 20 April 2011

Student Islamic societies must tackle hate speech

Carly McKenzie Guardian 26 April 2010

KEY TERMS

Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.

BACKGROUNDERS

Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

ORGANISATIONS

Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.

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