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35th session of Human Rights Council in Geneva; ADF International addresses “hate speech” regulations as threat to democracy

GENEVA - On 19 June, ADF International addressed increasing speech regulations by so-called “hate speech” laws in a number of UN Member States during the 35th session of the Human Rights Council. The human rights legal organization delivered an oral statement responding to the report of the Special Rapporteur on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.

“Everyone should be free to speak without fear of being punished by the government. The number of Member States enthusiastically recommending the expansion of ‘hate speech’ laws is worrying. Freedom of speech is one of the hallmarks of a free and democratic society. ‘Hate speech’ laws create a “you-can’t-say-that” mindset, which silences debate and has a chilling effect on society. In a free society ideas should be fought with ideas, not criminal penalties,” said Rubén Navarro, Senior UN Counsel for ADF International.

The rise of free speech restrictions

Across Europe, “hate speech” laws have already had a devastating effect on freedom of speech. Ministers of religion have been arrested for preaching sermons from the Bible, journalists are routinely fined, and even private conversations between citizens can result in criminal investigation. For example, in Poland, offending “religious feelings” carries a two-year prison sentence, while in Sweden anyone who expresses “contempt” toward a group of people may be jailed. 

The intervention of ADF International pointed to the fact that there is no formal or universally shared definition of what constitutes “hate speech,” an issue that has been acknowledged by the Council of Europe, the Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union, and UNESCO.

“The European Court of Human Rights has affirmed the right to freedom of expression in numerous cultures and contexts across Europe. Once the State starts censoring unpopular speech, there is no logical stopping point. Freedom of speech fosters vibrant civil society. Censorship creates fear. Citizens feel like they are treading on eggshells, not knowing whether or not their words may lead to arrest and prosecution,” said Paul Coleman, Senior Counsel and Deputy Director for ADF International and author of the book Censored - How European “Hate Speech” Laws are Threatening Freedom of Speech.


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