Where Does Free Speech End and Hate Speech Start?

Julie Ferguson, EIS rep and member of the STUC Disabled Workers’ Committee, writes for the STUC blog:

In June this year, it was announced that in Scotland hate crime against disabled people increased from 188 in 2016-17 to 284 in 2017-18.  This is a worrying trend, especially in the current political climate of austerity, leaving the EU and its Human Rights Convention, and general labelling of disabled people as “benefit scroungers”.

Disabled people are regularly insulted, and challenged aggressively, simply for being different:

“You don’t need that wheelchair, you can walk.”

“Why should you get money from the government?  Earn it like everybody else!”

“You’re a retard.”

“Get out of my way, blind bitch.”

“Disabled people should be sterilised.”

“Cripples shouldn’t be allowed out.”

“I hope you choke on your plastic straw and die.”

So.  Where does free speech end and hate speech start?

On Twitter, this is a common view:

Julie_blog quote 1

[Tweet reads: “Even though some opinions are REALLY out there, they’re still not YOUR opinion.  People need to accept that free speech includes all; not just the one that line up with theirs”]

Well, let’s check that.

Amnesty International UK states thatFreedom of speech is the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, by any means.”.  As Amnesty International UK points out, we have the right to look up, listen to, write, and say anything we want.  Within reason.  The UK and Scottish Governments both have an obligation to prevent free speech from becoming hate speech, i.e. a hate crime.

Police Scotland defines a hate crime as one “motivated by malice or ill will towards a social group by: race; sexual orientation; religion/faith; disability; transgender/gender identity” This definition includes the use of intimidating or threatening behaviour (including obscene calls and gestures), verbal abuse or insults (including name calling), and online bullying and abuse.

The boundary between free speech and hate speech/crime lies somewhere between those two definitions.  I can’t give you legal advice about whether something you or someone else has said is definitely free speech or hate speech.

I am asking you to think about it more, to consider what you’re saying, or what someone else is saying, with this in mind.

Here’s some examples of ‘free’ speech:

Collin Brewer, a councillor in Cornwall, said disabled children should be put down because they cost the council too much money.  Afterwards, he said that he didn’t think he’d done anything wrong (4).

On Twitter, a photo of a nine year old girl with disabilities was used in a pro-eugenics campaign.  The message read, “It is okay to think that every child matters however a lot of them do not”.

While campaigning to become President of the United States, Donald Trump mocked a journalist for being disabled, and he was filmed jerking his arm spastically.

On Reddit, there are several threads (you may not want to click the following links) discussing whether disabled people, particularly mentally-disabled people, should be euthanised (killed).  A lot of people think we should be killed.

Another Twitter example:

julie blog image 2

[Tweet reads: in case youre wondering YES I am prejudiced against the mentally disabled and mentally ill, id kill them myself if I could, w an uzi w “GOOD INTENTIONS” engraved into it !”]

Why am I worried?  There are people out there who advocate the right to say anything they want without consequences.  Perhaps these people won’t take it further into physical violence, but they’re opening up the potential for others to do so, thinking that they will have support for their actions.

Two years ago, 19 people were killed in a care home in Japan, because they were disabled. 25 more were wounded. If we let hate speech against disabled people become normal, not only do we have to deal with the mental damage of that behaviour, we’re also normalising violence against disabled people.

Don’t believe me?  Boris Johnson recently made derogatory comments about burkas and niqabs, and violence against Muslims often increases after politicians hold forth like this.  Watch the news, pay attention to the people around you.

The bottom line is, nobody gets to abuse another person for being disabled, or for any other protected characteristic.  If you think you’ve experienced a hate crime, report it to the police.  Police Scotland must log and investigate any incident as a hate crime if the crime is seen by the victim as caused by prejudice.  If it’s a hate crime, they’ll take it further.  If it’s a hate incident, they’ll use the information to identify trends and target resources more effectively.  Either way, reporting it helps you and other people.  If you think you’ve witnessed a hate crime, report it to the police.  You do not have to be the victim of the crime to report it.

If you’d like to read more about hate crime legislation as it currently is in Scotland, with recommendations for improvements, please have a look at Lord Bracadale’s “Independent Review of Hate Legislation Crime in Scotland”, which was published in May this year.  The report can be downloaded as a PDF.

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