Hearing on freedom of expression and hate speech

“There are numerous ideological and conceptual divisions at the European Court of Human Rights with regard to the issue of hate speech. This situation is due to the difficulty in distinguishing between the “Charlie Hebdo" approach and "the Dieudonné approach". Where does one draw the line between offensive and provocative speech, which is nevertheless at the heart of our democratic values, and genuine but cleverly concealed hate speech?”, asked Nicolas Hervieu of the Panthéon-Assas University at a meeting of the No Hate Parliamentary Alliance.

At a hearing held by the Alliance today in Paris under the auspices of the PACE Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination, the participants discussed how to draw the line between the need for openness in a democratic society and the inevitable reflex of closing the door on “otherness”. In short, how can freedom of expression thrive without fostering hatred and violence? According to Mr Hervieu, the ambivalence of the concept of ‘democracy’ is at the heart of the dilemma: the need to protect freedom of expression at all costs in the name of democracy while preventing harmful rhetoric that undermines democracy. “There are two opposing trends in case-law. On the one hand, there is the axiological approach according to which particular offensive statements may only be stigmatised if they collide with or offend certain values; on the other hand a liberal tendency which, in the name of democratic freedom, tolerates all types of rhetoric, no matter how abject and shocking it is” said Mr Hervieu.

The participants unanimously concluded that “in the face of this classic dilemma, it is most important to avoid becoming intolerant oneself: under the pretext of combating offensive rhetoric, the watchdogs of democracy and free public debate may ultimately disavow the very heart of democratic freedom. In these troubled times, any of us may find ourselves in the reverse situation, for censorship can pursue humanist motives and freedom of expression may be used as a pretext by the enemies of freedom. It is precisely against this risk of losing our democratic bearings that we must fight” they said.