Ayreh Neier: Why free speech is important in averting atrocities

Aryeh Neier, human rights lawyer and president emeritus of the Open Society Foundations speaks about the future of free speech.

Aryeh Neier speaks of the value of  free speech (2:00min) including its role in flagging up problems, citing the Great Famine in China as an example (4:15 min). The right to speak may be restricted in specific circumstances given the situation (7:20 min). Hate speech is one example of speech that is not protected under law in the EU (8:45 min). Blasphemy is quite different from hate speech. While restrictions against hate speech can be legitimate,  violence as a result of blasphemy is not. Violence and laws against blasphemy have been on the rise in the last 25 years (14:00min).

The advent of the internet, like that of all other new media, has been an important factor in the development of free speech (17:40 min). Those who advocate restrictions on the content of speech face a globalised world sharing content beyond borders. A lot of content would have to be suppressed if offensiveness were a criteria for what should be oppressed on the internet (18:30 min). Others focus on service providers to restrict the dissemination of content, which, however, are often out of reach of local law (20:00 min). This requires service providers to become censors in order to protect their own safety. Twitter is a recent example of a service provider that has started to respond to state laws to restrict the dissemination of content locally (21:30min).

Speech can play a significant role in atrocities. The Uganda Radio station inciting genocide of Hutus against Tutsies is such an example (22:40 min).  The role of the broadcast is determined by the context in which it took place. In a diverse media environment the messages serving the Ugandan government to incite hate against the Tutsies may not have had the same impact (13:00 min).

In the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks Neier feared a crack down on the expression of views sympathic to these terrorists. This has not happened in the US (26:50 min). There have, however, been infringements on other rights and freedoms (28:20 min). A hard time lies ahead of those defending freedom of speech.
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Comments (3)

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  1. Hello Judith,

    thank you for this question, as it was indeed needed in order to make my comment clearer.

    What I was trying to point to, is the fact that since there are no laws, to my knowledge at least, forbidding hate speech in the US, then by which statistics does Mr. Neier draw his conclusion; that the hate speech rate is low?
    It would seem a (more) valid statement, if for example there actually was such a law, and that the claims of a low rate were based upon the reported frequency of this offence. But since there is no such legislation (again, to my knowledge) then I am curious if Mr. Neier’s statement can be backed up. I am not saying that there is no empirical evidence, merely inquiring to it’s existence and whereabouts. For all I know, the can very well have been surveys (sociological and other) undertaken on this subject.

  2. Thanks for your comment Joachim. What kind of empirical evidence are you referring to?

  3. In debth and interesting in only 30 minutes. Much appreciated.

    Somewhere around 13-14 minutes along, mr. Neier speaks of the rate of hate speech in the US, saying that it has barely been observed, making this claim seem like a premis in an argument where the conclusion would land somewhere in the lines of approving the continued nonexistence of a law forbidding hate speech in the US. What I’m curious to find out, is whether this “premis” can be backed up by any empirical statistics?

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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