by Tanya Cohen (pictured)
IF there’s one thing that truly demonstrates just how incredibly far behind the rest of the world America is when it comes to protecting the most basic and fundamental human rights, it’s the fact that America remains the only country in the world where there are absolutely no legal protections against hate speech. Protecting vulnerable minorities from hate speech is one of the most basic and fundamental human rights obligations, and international human rights law requires all countries to institute strong legal protections against hate speech. By failing to pass any kind of laws against hate speech, the United States is not only failing to protect basic human rights, but it’s also explicitly violating the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), both of which require all countries to outlaw all forms of hate speech. From the standpoint of more civilized countries, this is totally unacceptable, and it does a great deal of damage to America’s international image and reputation. It firmly establishes the United States as a pariah state that has absolutely no regard whatsoever for fundamental human rights or for international law. It makes the United States look like a backwards, regressive, and reactionary bastion of hatred and intolerance.
On Friday, May 29, 2015, a massive hate rally was held in Phoenix, Arizona. With the sole intention of inciting racist hatred and violence against Muslims while harassing and intimidating the local Muslim community, a group of heavily-armed white male terrorists converged outside of an Arizona mosque wearing “FUCK ISLAM” T-shirts and spewing racist anti-Muslim hate speech. This incident demonstrates quite clearly just how badly a hate speech law is needed in the US. In any other country, such a rally would NEVER have been allowed to take place. In Australia, anyone trying to organize such a rally would be charged with multiple crimes: incitement to racial hatred, incitement to violence, harassment, intimidation, disorderly conduct, disturbing the peace, and defamation, to name just a few. But, in the US, this viciously racist hate-a-thon was allowed to be carried out with no interference whatsoever from the police, and the white male terrorists organizing the event were able to get away with racially terrorizing innocent Muslims scot-free. This cannot continue to happen in a country that supposedly values basic human rights and individual freedoms. This is not something that has any place in a civilized, moral, and progressive society. This is the mark of a truly sick and truly backwards society that has absolutely no regard whatsoever for the most basic and fundamental of human rights.
Allowing this kind of racist, anti-Muslim hate speech to flourish fuels terrorism almost as much as America’s overseas wars do. Muslims are perhaps the most vulnerable, marginalized, and disenfranchised minority in the United States. For many years, the US government has launched overseas wars against Muslims (killing thousands of innocents) while, on its own shores, persecuting Muslims with a wide range of draconian “anti-terror” legislation. Meanwhile, American media and American politicians continuously paint Muslims as evil, savage, dangerous terrorists that every citizen must be wary of. Muslims in the US have been systematically stripped of their human rights, their human dignity, and their basic humanity itself. So, when right-wing hatemongers like Pamela Geller use their so-called “freedom of speech” to mock and belittle American Muslims – who already face widespread persecution from the government and from society – is it really any surprise that some of them would snap and see violence as their only option? Is it really any surprise that some Muslims would feel like their life in the United States simply isn’t worth living any more, and that they have nothing left to lose? And, when vulnerable minorities are denied any kind of legal way to deal with hatred (America is, after all, the only country in the world where hate speech is entirely legal), is it really any surprise that they would feel like they’re forced to use violence as their only way to fight back against hate? In a country where the so-called “right” to spew racial hatred at vulnerable minorities is valued more than basic human rights, is it really any wonder that said vulnerable minorities would feel alienated and perhaps even downright angry?
Human rights groups around the world have complained for many decades about America’s complete failure to pass and enforce strong legal protections against hate speech in accordance with its international human rights obligations. As Amnesty International says: “Governments have an obligation to prohibit hate speech and incitement.” America is a country that desperately needs to learn the difference between free speech and hate speech. Americans totally fail to make the necessary distinction between the two. In no way would outlawing hate speech curtail freedom of speech or interfere with First Amendment rights, as hate speech is NOT part of freedom of speech in any way, shape, or form. One of the biggest mistakes that Americans make is confusing freedom of speech with hate speech, and referring to hate speech as “free” speech. As a descendant of Holocaust survivors, I can assure you that hate speech is most assuredly NOT free speech. There is absolutely NOTHING “free” about hate speech. Someone always pays a hefty price for hate speech, and the people paying the price are always members of vulnerable and marginalized minority groups. In Nazi Germany, six million Jews paid the price for hate speech. In Rwanda, one million Tutsis did. Hate speech is anything but “free”. It comes with an extremely high price, as history has repeatedly shown us. As the old mantra goes, those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat it. After leading human rights group Hope Not Hate successfully campaigned to have right-wing hatemongers Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer banned from the UK, Hope Not Hate spokesman Matthew Collins stated: “There is a line in the sand between freedom of speech and the right to use hate speech. Freedom of speech does not guarantee you that right. We live in a democracy and we believe in free speech. People will now quote Voltaire but he never had the benefit of going to the gates of Auschwitz and seeing where unfettered free speech ends up.”
I am a passionate believer in the unalienable right to freedom of speech, and I have done a great deal to protect and promote freedom of speech in Australia and other countries. In fact, I have persistently lobbied the Australian government to enact an Australian Bill of Rights which guarantees the right to freedom of speech. What Americans don’t seem to understand is that protecting vulnerable minorities from hate speech has absolutely nothing to do with freedom of speech. In their responses to my articles, Americans seem to be concerned about freedom of speech. They don’t seem to understand that this isn’t even an issue of freedom of speech. This has NOTHING TO DO with freedom of speech. Freedom of speech does NOT protect hate speech and never has. Hate speech is the exact opposite of freedom of speech. Describing hate speech as “freedom” is nothing more than the Orwellian manipulation of words. Hate speech is not “freedom”. Hate speech is the exact opposite of freedom, and hate speech actually seeks to take away our freedoms (and it especially seeks to take freedom away from vulnerable minorities). The people who spew hate speech are the number one enemies of freedom. Hatred is a corrosive force that destroys freedom wherever it is allowed to flourish. If hate speech is not suppressed, it will destroy all forms of freedom, civil liberties, human rights, and democracy. Hate speech is anything but “free”. AsHolocaust survivor Moshe Fiszman says regarding people that want to weaken legal protections against hate speech: “You might think you are increasing freedom, but let me assure you that you will be taking away the freedom of communities such as mine. The freedom to live without hatred and without lies being told about us.” Vulnerable minorities are infinitely less free when hate speech is allowed to flourish. Ultimately, as Fiszman explains, the campaign against these laws really isn’t about freedom of speech at all. It’s about allowing right-wing hatemongers to spew toxic vitriol and get away with it scot-free, at the expense of the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.
Americans really seem to have no idea what freedom of speech is. Americans have a deep and fundamental misunderstanding of freedom of speech. Not only do Americans confuse free speech with hate speech, but they also seem to believe that freedom of speech gives people the right to say whatever they want. This could not possibly be any farther from the truth. Like all democratic rights, freedom of speech comes with significant responsibility, and part of that responsibility is not abusing freedom of speech to manipulate public opinion against the common good. When right-wing hatemongers are allowed to manipulate public opinion against the common good, it has disastrous consequences for vulnerable minorities. We learned that in the Holocaust, we learned that in Rwanda, we learned that in Srebrenica, and we’re currently learning that in the United States, where the American government continues to violently persecute African-Americans and other minorities while right-wing hatemongers – including many right-wing hatemongers in the American government – continue to justify said oppression. Hate speech is intimately linked to violence against minorities, and hate speech has been responsible for every single genocide throughout history. To quote Tim Soutphommasane of the Australian Human Rights Commission, “genocide begins with words.” The Holocaust did not start with gas chambers. The Holocaust started with hate speech, and so did every other genocide in history.
As I have stated many times before, I lived in Australia before moving to the United States to work with human rights organizations here. Australia is, needless to say, a much more civilized, progressive, and enlightened country than the comparatively backwards and regressive United States. In Australia, I worked with many of the country’s leading human rights organizations, and I was a part of many organizations that work with people and communities affected by racist hate speech. Australians understand the extremely harmful effects of hate speech, and there is a very large support network for helping victims of hate speech in Australia. In Australia, there are many organizations dedicated to helping victims of hate speech overcome their abuse and seek justice for it, and there are also many programs encouraging people to report others to the police if they see anyone expressing racist sentiments. Protecting vulnerable minorities from hate speech is just second nature to Australians, and the need to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society from the extremely harmful and damaging effects of hate speech is something that all Australians firmly agree with. Australia is a culture based on fundamental human rights and individual freedoms. The reason that I moved to the US to work with human rights organizations here is because America needs human rights activism MUCH more than Australia does.
There is simply no human rights culture whatsoever in the US, and even so-called “progressives” in America still seem to oppose basic human rights. To an Australian like myself, it’s absolutely surreal to see people calling themselves “progressive” while, at the same time, opposing laws against hate speech. Where I’m from, even the most far-right nationalists still believe that there should be at least SOME laws against hate speech. I speak for all Australians in my articles, and never in my entire life have I ever encountered a single Australian who disagreed with me in the slightest. There CERTAINLY aren’t any progressive Australians who would disagree with me, at any rate. It’s really hard to fathom how Americans who call themselves “progressive” can stand up for racial vilification and other forms of hate speech. What does it say about America that America’s “progressives” are actually way more far-right than even the most extreme far-right lunatics in Australia? After all, not even the most extreme far-right lunatics in Australia would ever actually go so far as to suggest that there should be absolutely NO legal protections against hate speech whatsoever. That’s BEYOND far-right extremism, yet many so-called “progressive” Americans actually seem to believe that there should indeed be absolutely no legal protections against hate speech whatsoever. Do Americans have any idea how extreme that is, and how unbelievably backwards it looks to the rest of the world? Do Americans have any idea how much this damages their international image and reputation?
America’s lack of any kind of human rights-based culture is simply unimaginable to people from more civilized, enlightened, and human rights-oriented cultures like Australia and the UK. Every time I told someone in Australia that the US has absolutely no laws against hate speech, they outright refused to believe me. Some of them actually thought I was joking. To people in more enlightened and progressive countries like Australia, it’s just totally unthinkable that, in the year 2015, a so-called “free” country would have absolutely no legal protections against hate speech whatsoever. If anyone in Australia ever said that there should be absolutely no legal protections against hate speech, I can’t even imagine the kind of massive public backlash that would ensue. Not only would they lose their jobs and receive numerous death threats, but they would also most likely have to hire bodyguards as well. No, I’m not exaggerating in the least. In fact, far-right politician Tim Wilson received tons of death threats from outraged Australians when he stated that rape jokes and other sexist speech shouldn’t be illegal. There were also widespread calls for him to be sacked from his job, and he is currently one of the most universally despised people in the country. However, not even Tim Wilson has openly stated that there should be absolutely no legal protections against hate speech (if he did, he would be fired from his job for sure, and he would also never find work again). The position that hate speech shouldn’t be illegal is not even remotely close to being an acceptable opinion in Australia. It’s like believing that child abuse shouldn’t be illegal. There isn’t a single person in Australia who believes that there should be absolutely no legal protections against hate speech. Again, the mere concept of having absolutely no legal protections against hate speech is just totally unthinkable in a free society where people have basic human rights.
Privileged white men own absolutely everything in America. They own the media, they own the corporations, they own the courts, they own the government, and they own society as a whole. American society is white supremacist to the core, and the American government is not only astonishingly racist, but also completely corrupt, immoral, and anti-human rights in every other conceivable way. The American government disproportionately incarcerates African-Americans and targets them with vicious police brutality. The American government treats Latin American asylum seekers like animals. The American government routinely targets and persecutes Muslims on its own shores with draconian “anti-terrorism” legislation while, at the same time, slaughtering thousands of Muslims overseas. The American government strongly supports Israel’s ongoing genocide against the Palestinians. The American government refuses to allow African-Americans and other minorities to exercise genuine freedom of speech (for example, the American government violently cracked down on protesters in Ferguson, and Steven Salaita was fired from his job for speaking out against Israeli apartheid in Palestine). The American government spies on its own citizens and overseas citizens with agencies like the NSA. The American government tortures and executes people (disproportionately minorities, of course). All of these things show just how racist and heartless the American government is. But the fact that the American government steadfastly refuses to pass any kind of legal protections against hate speech is definitely the icing on the cake. Even the most corrupt and backwards countries – countries like Russia and Turkey, for example – still have laws against hate speech. America’s total lack of legal protections against hate speech makes America truly one of the most backwards and anti-human rights countries in the world. And this all ties in with just how racist and white supremacist America is to its very core. The fact that America sees absolutely no need to protect its vulnerable minorities from hate speech is solid proof that the American government is owned entirely by privileged white men who not only couldn’t care less about vulnerable minorities, but actively participate in the oppression of said vulnerable minorities.
As I recently wrote in the Daily Kos, perhaps the most vulnerable, marginalized, and oppressed minority group in America are Muslim Americans. Every single day, the American media and American politicians pump the American public full of hate propaganda against Muslims, dehumanizing Muslims as evil terrorists and enemies of freedom. In fact, much of the hate speech against Muslims comes directly from the American government, which repeatedly attempts to justify its oppression of Muslims and its overseas bombing of Muslims by painting all Muslims as “the enemy”. Naturally, this kind of rampant hatred does lead to countless violent attacks on innocent Muslim citizens. Last February, racist hate speech against Muslims from Bill Maher led to the shooting of two innocent Muslim students in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. These two students paid the ultimate price for Maher’s “free” hate speech. In a more civilized country like Australia or the UK, not only would Bill Maher be taken off of the air and stripped of his right to public comment, but he would also be taken before a Human Rights Commission and sent to prison for repeatedly making comments that incite racist hatred and violence against Muslims. Hate speech kills people, as the Chapel Hill shootings clearly demonstrated. Bill Maher was every bit as responsible for the Chapel Hill shootings as the shooter himself was. People who promote hatred need to take responsibility for their actions, but the United States currently allows hatemongers like Bill Maher to get off completely scot-free without ever having to take responsibility for the consequences of their hate speech.
In one of my previous articles, I discussed articles by the Australian Muslim human rights activists Waleed Aly and Mariam Veiszadeh. In Waleed Aly’s article, he discusses how one of the most important reasons for strong legal protections against hate speech is that Western society is completely dominated by privileged white men. As Aly says, Western societies have an extremely strong racial hierarchy, with white men firmly at the top. Privileged white men control every single aspect of Western society. They control the media, they control the narrative, they control the courts, and, most of all, they control the government. The American government, in particular, is completely dominated by privileged white men who have absolutely no understanding of the devastating affects that hate speech has on vulnerable minorities. The fact that the American government is the only government in the world with absolutely no legal protections against hate speech is perhaps the strongest proof we need of just how racist the American government truly is. Even during apartheid South Africa, it was against the law to hate speech that wounded the dignity of others (for example, racial slurs). How sad is it that the government of apartheid South Africa was less racist than the government of the modern-day United States? Even apartheid South Africa understood the need to protect vulnerable minorities from hate speech, but the deeply racist government of the United States still apparently doesn’t.
To quote Mariam Veiszadeh, from her article: “Whilst Abbott and Brandis keep reiterating that people have a right to make comments that upset or offend people, it is important to consider the position of the individual who makes the comments in question. Central to the debate is the fact that there is almost always a power imbalance between the person(s) who make the offending remarks and those whom the remarks are aimed at. This is clear when you take a look at the groups of people who have sought protection under s18C [Australia’s federal hate speech law]. They mostly come from marginalized, minority communities and they do not, under any stretch of the imagination, stand on an equal footing with their perpetrators.” This is a crucial thing to remember. Hate speech is the powerful and privileged punching down at the powerless and oppressed. Hate speech is privileged white men attacking vulnerable and disenfranchised minorities. Hate speech is a form of censorship. Members of vulnerable and marginalized groups are already denied a voice in American society, and hate speech seeks to silence minority voices even further. Hate speech benefits only the people in power: privileged white men. At the same time, hate speech tears minority communities apart and fuels violence against them. Hate speech is, by itself, a form of violence against the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society. Privileged white men – like the privileged white men who run the American government – simply have no idea of just how hurtful and just how dangerous hate speech is to vulnerable minorities. It’s not a coincidence that all people who oppose laws against hate speech are privileged white men. They’re not the ones who will have to endure the painful consequences of said hate speech. They’re not the ones that hate speech targets, and they’re not the ones who currently experience systems of oppression from society and from the government – systems of oppression that hate speech supports and perpetuates. In the words of Dr. Kerryn Phelps, one of Australia’s leading human rights activists: “If you think bigots have a right to unfettered expression of their views, then you have never been a victim of hate speech.” It’s very easy for the most powerful and privileged members of society (straight white men) to defend hate speech, because they have no idea of the devastating impact that hate speech has on the most vulnerable and marginalized members of society.
Freedom of speech exists to allow the marginalized and oppressed to speak out – not to support and perpetuate systems of marginalization and oppression. Hate speech reinforces the systems of white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy, heterosexism, cissexism, and capitalism that currently dominate Western society and Western governments. As long as hate speech is allowed to flourish, racism in American society – and racism in the American government – will continue to flourish as well. Only by cracking down on all forms of hate speech can America finally become a progressive, tolerant, civil, and respectful society free of hatred and bigotry. If you care about vulnerable and marginalized people – if you care about the oppression of women, LGBT people, disabled people, African Americans, Hispanics, and other people of color – then you need to persistently lobby the American government to enact strong legal protections against hate speech like all other democracies have already done.
As any human rights activist could tell you, freedom of speech has to be balanced against other human rights, including the human rights to dignity, respect, non-discrimination, and freedom from hatred. As a human rights activist and a civil libertarian, I have played a large role in passing and expanding Australia’s numerous laws against hate speech, along with its media regulation laws. In Australia, I worked for Amnesty International Australia, the Human Rights Law Centre, the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law, the NSW Council for Civil Liberties, and the Human Rights Working Group of the Greens NSW. All of these organizations have worked diligently to ensure that hate speech carries very strong criminal penalties in Australia, and I am extremely proud to say that I have played a large role in protecting human rights through my work with these organizations. I would now like to play a large role in getting legal protections against hate speech – along with media regulation laws – passed in the United States. Here is an outline of what the United States needs to do:
1. Set up an American Human Rights Commission, along with Human Rights Commissions in each state. These Human Rights Commissions would be responsible for prosecuting anyone who spreads hate speech, much like the Human Rights Tribunals in America’s northern neighbor Canada. Victims of hate speech would be able to use the Human Rights Commissions in order to seek justice and send hatemongers to prison.
2. Pass a Human Rights Act outlawing all forms of speech that violates human rights, harms society, or is otherwise unacceptable. This would apply to any speech made by any person, whether the speech was made in public or in private. This would outlaw any speech that is offensive, insulting, hateful, hurtful, dangerous, unacceptable, disrespectful, impolite, uncivil, regressive, harmful, harassing, humiliating, intimidating, threatening, vilifying, defamatory, untrue, misleading, irresponsible, intolerant, totalitarian, anti-freedom, anti-human rights, wrong, un-constructive, or otherwise not protected by freedom of speech. Anyone accused of hate speech must be required to prove their innocence or be declared guilty automatically (this is how Australia’s Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill works, and I lobbied very heavily for that law to be passed when I lived in Australia). True freedom of speech would be vigorously protected, while all forms of hate speech would carry severe criminal penalties. Anyone guilty of hate speech would be sent to special prisons designed to re-educate them. These special prisons would teach human rights, tolerance, freedom, democracy, respect, and civility.
3. Pass a Human Rights in Media Act, setting up a system where all media outlets (including blogs) and all commentators must register with the American Human Rights Commission before they are allowed to run media outlets or make public comments. All media outlets and all public commenters also need to be subjected to regular examinations in order to ensure that they are not attempting to undermine progress, oppose human rights, or manipulate public opinion against the common good. All media outlets and all commentators also need to devote a certain amount of their commentary to promoting human rights. Any media outlet or public commentator found to be insufficiently promoting human rights needs to be shut down, stripped of their right to public comment, and possibly subjected to criminal penalties as well. This would effectively shut down Fox News and the entire Murdoch media empire, along with all other right-wing hate outlets. It would establish a free and accountable press where defending human rights is the top priority.
4. Pass a Human Rights Online Act. This Act would not only make it a severe criminal offense on the federal level to publish, distribute, promote, or access hate speech online, but would also implement a federal Internet filtering system to protect vulnerable minorities from being exposed to hate sites. The Internet filter should block access to all hate sites, and anyone who tries to access any hate sites should be sent to jail, much like people who access child pornography. In keeping with the human rights legislation in Australia – like the proposed Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, which was unfortunately narrowly defeated by the efforts of the far-right – anyone accused of offending, insulting, humiliating, or intimidating other people should be required to prove their innocence or be declared guilty automatically, and this should also apply for anyone accused of publishing, distributing, promoting, or accessing online hatred. All American websites should be required to register with the American Human Rights Commission in order to ensure strict compliance with human rights. If any websites contain content that opposes human rights, then they should be shut down immediately and their owners should be sent to jail. In addition, all American websites should be required to promote human rights. Any website found to inadequately promote human rights should be shut down by the American Human Rights Commission, and the owner fined or sent to jail. Like Australia’s Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Bill, this would effectively shut down the Murdoch media empire and all other right-wing hate outlets, and it would prevent right-wing hatemongers from using the Internet or any other forms of media in order to manipulate public opinion against the common good. You can read more about how to protect human rights online in this article that I wrote for major Australian journalism outlet The Australian Independent Media Network, which received a universally positive response from progressive, forward-thinking Australians (and a universally negative response from regressive, anti-human rights Americans).
5. Pass a Human Rights in Business Act. Under this Act, all businesses would be required to register with the American Human Rights Commission, and anyone found to hold views which are incompatible with human rights (for example, anyone who opposes marriage equality or a woman’s right to choose) would be prohibited from owning a business, and would also be sent to jail for holding backwards ideas which have no place in modern society. Any business found to inadequately promote and protect human rights (for example, by failing to donate a certain amount of its profits to human rights organizations) would be shut down and the owners would be sent to jail.
6. Pass a Human Rights in Politics Act. This Act would require that, before the US passes any law, that law be rigorously inspected by the American Human Rights Commission in order to ensure that it is compliant with international human rights standards. No law would be passed unless it completely fulfills international human rights obligations. This Act would also give the United Nations the ability to prosecute Americans under the UN’s human rights courts. When other countries fail to adequately protect human rights (e.g. when Germany failed to press hate speech charges against right-wing hatemonger Thilo Sarrazin for his xenophobic writings), the UN often steps in and presses charges itself since, as the UN has stated many times, international law has absolute authority. The Act would also require all political parties to register with the American Human Rights Commission. Any political parties which fail to adequately protect and promote human rights would be banned and their party members sent to jail. In Europe, political parties which pose a threat to democracy are banned in order to protect freedom, civil liberties, and human rights (although Europe doesn’t ban far-right political parties nearly enough, as human rights groups have repeatedly condemned Europe for failing to ban far-right, anti-human rights parties like Jobbik, Front National, NPD, UKIP, and Sweden Democrats). In America, however, the government currently cannot ban any political parties, even when those parties pose a serious threat to democracy and freedom. Under international human rights standards, this is totally unacceptable.