Free speech vs hate speech: Where’s the line?

Free speech is important. It’s a cornerstone of democracy and should be a right that all are entitled to. While the topic of free speech is more contentious in the U.S, where it’s built into their constitutional rights, it is a universal issue and one that has come to light here in Ireland recently.

In a recent poll on Claire Byrne Live, 65% of those questioned did not believe that limits should be placed on free speech to protect people from being offended. This stems from a recent spate of articles in The Irish Times in which Nicholas Pell penned a controversial article about the alt-right movement that included a glossary of terms – some were arguably racist and sexist, depending on your viewpoint, many were hateful – frequently used by the online movement.

The Times defended publishing the article, stating that they feel readers can be challenged to form their own opinions on the matter. Writer Una Mullally argued against the publishing of the article, claiming that it normalises the racism or hate rhetoric that is often espoused by members of this movement.

It’s incredibly easy to argue that we live in an overly ‘PC’ world. Broadcasters, celebrities, politicians and the like have to be more careful than ever with their wording and public actions. To many, the ‘PC’ nature of the last few years has become a joke, but to others it represents a long fought battle for just representation. Words that were thrown around with abandon by the average person were causing harm and offense to groups like the LGBTQ+ community. It’s incredibly easy to deem the world ‘too PC’ or ‘overly censored’ when we are not the community or group who are predominantly affected by these slurs.

For example, many in Ireland have argued that Katie Hopkins shouldn’t be given the time of day, that the hateful rhetoric and discourse of superiority she presents should not be written about or given exposure on TV shows like The Late Late Show.

The Journal reported recently that RTÉ received over 1600 complaints prior to her appearance on the talk show. News stories on social media about her actions often have comment sections filled with people saying she shouldn’t be written about at all. This has led to media outlets like announcing publically that they won’t be publishing any further stories about Katie Hopkins. So why is public opinion against free speech when it comes to her and not things like the alt-right movement?

I think when it comes down to it, we, as a country, are more invested in things that immediately concern us. Katie Hopkins lives in the UK, her words appear in our newspapers and on our Facebook feeds, on our talk shows and radio programmes. She is in an immediate and unpleasant problem.

The alt right-movement however, is not. To Ireland, it is an American problem. We hear stories of fake news and Twitter trolls, of Nazi salutes at marches or racial violence. We scroll past the article, shake our heads and think ‘America has gone crazy’. The alt-right movement is external, it hasn’t hit our government, and, at the end of the day, it’s not the concern of a lot of Irish people.

So naturally, the majority of us don’t care what people say about it. In his article Nicholas Pell, pitched the movement as joke-like while Una Mullally described it as a dangerous supremacist movement. So where should media representation fit into on this spectrum? Do we offer a full spectrum of views, entitling everyone to free speech, or does a sort of media ‘censorship’ apply? Not in terms of the traditional government censorship of the past, but one that favours decency.

Do we refuse to acknowledge and publish racial slurs and homophobic language at the risk of taking away people’s right to free speech? Does this risk making a movement seem less dangerous than it has the potential to be?

In this case, a middle ground seems to be a logical answer. Fintan O’Toole wrote an article recently for The Irish Times in which he outlined the connections between the ‘alt right’ and the more traditional fascist ideas we’re familiar with from history books. It was an informative look at the rise of this neo-fascist movement that challenged readers without introducing them to a glossary of vocabulary used by the movement. Insightful without providing a means to spread hateful language.

Perhaps this is the role of media in a ‘post truth’ world. Report the truth and provide the information without encouraging. Don’t lessen how dangerous something like the alt right movement is but don’t provide them with the means to spread an aggressive and dated ideology. Whatever the answer is to the media’s position, it’s clear that Irish people favour free speech, without limits. But only time will tell if this will come at a cost.

-By Deirdre Leonard

Image from OrangeWebsite.

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