The Risk of Criminalizing Hate Speech

Ethan Pinto

Before I begin, a quick note: hate speech is defined as “speech that attacks, threatens, or insults a person or group on the basis of national origin, ethnicity, color, religion, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or disability.”  In addition, please note that the United Kingdom does not have a First Amendment or any law comparable to The United States’ First Amendment.

I am a staunch supporter of freedom of speech. I believe people should be allowed to say whatever they want and face social consequences for their actions, not legal ones. Most importantly, I do not want the government telling people what they can and can not say, since authoritarian dictatorships end up thriving as a result of laws that limit people’s speech. Therefore, I am against hate speech laws because they could be abused by the people in power. Now, there are two main questions that should be considered. Should hate speech be expanded to be against the law? More importantly, who gets to define hate speech?

To answer these questions, I will bring up a 2016 court case from Scotland, which was brought against a man named Mark Meechan. While this is a matter of laws in the UK and not the US, it is still a great example of how things could go wrong here in America. Mark Meechan (better known by his YouTube name Count Dankula) describes himself as an “edgy YouTube comedian.” He was arrested for a joke he made with his girlfriend’s pug Buddha, which he uploaded to YouTube. He is quoted in the video as saying his “girlfriend was always ranting and raving about how cute and adorable her wee dog is,” so he decided to shock her by turning her dog into “the least cute thing [he] could think of.” He then decided to teach his girlfriend’s pug to mock a Nazi by teaching it to raise its right paw when he said “Sieg Heil,” and teaching it to get excited when he said “gas the Jews.” Despite clarifying that he isn’t actually racist or anti-Semitic, and, more importantly, that it was a joke, and not meant to be taken seriously, the Scottish justice system, of their own volition (there was no complaint made), decided to arrest him and charge him with a hate crime for promoting anti-Semitic speech through the medium of a pug. His video was the primary piece of evidence used against him (his girlfriend was also forced to testify against him, or face arrest as well). He was convicted earlier this year, after a two year legal battle, and fined eight hundred pounds (USD 1035.21, which he has refused to pay out of protest while he appeals his conviction).

Whether or not you found his joke distasteful, his case has set a very dangerous precedent; you don’t get to decide the context of your own words, the courts do. If this law were in place here in America, by simply typing the words “gas the Jews,” in the context of explaining this court case, I could be arrested and forced to pay a thousand dollars for a hate crime. This could be heavily abused by any government. For example, if Donald Trump was browsing Twitter one day and found something he found incredibly offensive (Kathy Griffin’s photo of her holding his severed head, for example), he could have her arrested and charged for a hate crime, despite that photo being both a joke and a form of protest.

This sort of incident actually happened in China, where the government has blocked Winnie the Pooh because people made memes about the visual similarities between the goofy stuffed bear and Xi Jinping. While this sort of censorship does not exist at the moment, if these laws were to be enacted, people could be arrested for example, for demanding that Trump be removed from office due to the Mueller report, because it would be a “direct attack on someone’s ideology,” and therefore “hate speech” (I understand this is an extreme end to things, but it is important to consider). These laws wouldn’t help bring power to the people, they would help the people in power.

Now, to answer the questions I posed at the beginning of the article. In my opinion, I do not think hate speech laws should be expanded due to the fact that they could be used by the government as a tool to silence ordinary citizens and dissidents, especially with regards to political ideology. Also, in my opinion, speech should be socially regulated by the people. Not by some words on a piece of paper, and certainly not by the government. Although I despise hate speech, at the end of the day, it is free speech, and free speech should never be regulated. Comedy, in particular, is something that is meant to have no limits. If it is funny, it is funny. The outcome of the Dankula case is a terrifying wake up call for supporters of free speech all over the world, as now something as simple as a stupid edgy joke can get someone arrested. Free speech is a human right, and deprivation of it in any form, whether with the intention of protecting people or not, is a slippery slope that we should not begin to go down.

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