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How to Talk About Fire in a Crowded Room

As the fighting entered a third week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Israelis and Palestinians to “stop fighting, start talking, and take on the root causes of the conflict” in Gaza. The renewal of violence in the region sparked a wave of pro-Palestinian demonstrations as well as anti-Semitic speeches and attacks on Jewish synagogues and businesses in Europe.

Both Germany and France have laws prohibiting anti-Semitic speech, and a spokesman for the German Chancellor denounced the anti-Semitic threats at demonstrations as an “attack on freedom and tolerance, and an attempt to destroy Germany’s democracy.” A decision to ban a planned pro-Palestinian demonstration in Paris after a previous demonstration ended with the authorities’ use of tear gas against the crowd drew criticism as censorship. Some characterized the ban as a provocative move that actually could worsen violence at rallies.

While many European countries’ decisive responses to anti-Semitic hate speech must be placed within the context of the crimes perpetrated by the Nazis, I wonder about the implications of characterizing offensive speech as an “attempt to destroy…democracy.” Most Americans accept that certain speech is not protected (no false shouts of “Fire!” in a packed theater or other shouts that lead to ‘imminent lawless action’), and it’s understandable that European democracies would prohibit and prosecute hate speech that actually incited violent acts at demonstrations.

Hate speech laws could cause a kind of brooding silence that ultimately erupts in violence.”

But overreaching hate speech laws and their poorly-executed enforcement could do more harm than good in sorting out a conflict with religious and ethnic roots. It’s possible that hate speech laws and subsequent “bans” of rallies could backfire, causing dangerous actors on both sides of the conflict to use the censorship to galvanize others to a more violent cause, while taking attention away from resolving the conflict.

Some healthy debate also could be stifled by censorship. For example, France moderates hate speech on the internet, with moderators being overwhelmed in their attempts to block hate speech commentary concerning the conflict in Gaza. Even given the deeply offensive nature of some—perhaps the majority—of online commentary, should it be banned and criminalized if it is unconnected to the instigation of lawless action?  Is there a chance that the moderators will block debate that may be offensive but nevertheless should be treated as protected speech?

In weighing the pros and cons of the hate speech laws, I’m reminded of The Diplomat’s recent interview with Hudson Institute Senior Fellow Dr. Paul Marshall, who explains that blasphemy laws tend to help entrench repressive regimes and stop meaningful theological debate within religious societies that enforce them. Hate speech laws have the potential to cause similar problems in societies that are used to exercising free speech rights, causing a kind of brooding silence that ultimately erupts in the very violence that the laws sought to prevent.

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