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Can European laws stop hate?

Both the European Commission and the Parliament are addressing the problem of hate crimes. But without a clear definition of what “hate” is, we will not solve the problem, writes Arie de Pater of the European Evangelical Alliance in Brussels.

EUROPEAN PERSPECTIVES AUTOR 178/Arie_de_Pater 01 DE MARZO DE 2024 09:45 h
The European Parliament. / Photo: [link]Jorgen Hendriksen[/link], Unsplash, CC0.

With antisemitism and anti-Muslim hatred on the rise, both the European Commission and the European Parliament recently addressed hate speech and hate crimes. These have to stop. The Parliament calls for more rules. But how can we both protect free speech and fight hate speech, especially in absence of a definition of the latter?

In December, the European Commission issued a joint communication entitled “No place for hate. A Europe united against hate.” The Commission starts with expressing their concern about recent incidents and attacks targeting the Jewish community in Europe. Muslims across Europe are confronted with intimidation, harassment, and discrimination.

For the European Evangelical Alliance, signalling the same trend, this was reason to issue two calls for action, one against antisemitism and one against anti-Muslim hatred.

[destacate]Where does freedom of expression end and where does hate speech begin?[/destacate]The Commission observes that “hatred leads to more hatred,” and that “hate is a risk for our society and democracy.” Therefore, the Commission feels the responsibility to “combat hatred, scapegoating, and the denigration of any person due to their racial and ethnic origin, their faith, their gender or their sexuality.” It announces several steps it will take to stop the spread of hatred.

The European Parliament in January adopted a resolution urging member states to add hate speech and hate crimes to the official list of “particularly serious crimes with a cross-border dimension.” Adding hate speech and hate crimes to this list would allow for EU-wide standards and minimum penalties.


Laudable aims but no clear definition of hate

The aim of both the Commission and the Parliament to fight hatred in our societies, both online and offline, is a laudable one. Hate crimes are acts that are already illegal, like arson or murder, that are motivated by hate.

However, the European Parliament in its resolution is candid enough to admit that there is no clear or legal definition of hate speech. Where does freedom of expression end and where does hate speech begin?

You might recall the court case against Finnish parliamentarian Päivi Räsänen and bishop Juhana Pohjola. They were accused of hate speech when they publicly defended the traditional Christian definition of marriage and spoke out against their church’s support for the Pride parade.

This court case illustrates that although we agree at first sight that hate speech is bad, it very much hinges on the definition. And a definition we don’t have. That’s why adding hate speech to the list of so-called EU crimes won’t solve the issue.


The participation of society

The Commission in its communication shows to be well aware that legislation can send a clear signal to society but that the real problem lies deeper. It therefore calls on a range of societal actors to play their part, including schools, sport clubs, churches, media, and social media platforms.

The Commission acknowledging the church as a partner in fighting hatred is of course positive, however, this might not apply to for example faiths or beliefs respectfully rejecting same-sex marriage.

[destacate]The exact boundary between legal and illegal is much less clear. How much intolerance are we as a society willing to tolerate?[/destacate]Social media companies operate independently from the government. For many, they have become an important source of news and an indispensable means of communication, both with family and friends, and with the wider world. Social media are bound by a code of conduct and have an obligation to take down criminal content published on their platforms.

Users and so-called ‘trusted flaggers’ can report hate speech and other content that goes against the rules of the platform. But the lack of a clear definition of hate speech, combined with the threat of severe penalties could easily lead to a de facto limitation of the freedom of expression and self-censorship.

As both the Parliament and the Commission acknowledge, there is content that might be harmful but that is not illegal. A handbook on this topic includes antisemitic, Covid related, and anti-LGBTI content. A chapter on anti-Muslim hatred will be added this year.


The need for a candid conversation on freedom of expression

I assume that we will all recognise the most serious forms of hate speech when we see it. But the exact boundary between legal and illegal is much less clear. How much intolerance are we as a society willing to tolerate? That calls for a permanent candid, respectful, and inclusive discussion in our societies.

That is also in line with the Civil Public Square with room for a wide variety of voices that Os Guinness advocates for in The Global Charter of Conscience. The European Evangelical Alliance feels called to play our role in this civil public square. But they cannot do that without the support of all Europe’s more than 20 million Evangelicals (and all other people of good will).

Only together we can both fight hate speech and hate crimes and protect freedom of expression. No laws will eventually achieve that.

Arie de Pater, head of the Brussels office of the European Evangelical Alliance.


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