It is clear that a democratic society needs space for public debate, therefore people need to have the opportunity to express and publish their opinions and ideas without any boundaries or fear of repression. We often hear that a democratic society however, is not without rough edges and public debates necessarily involves disagreement and confrontation between differing viewpoints. So when does the discrimination of others through words – so called hate speech – start and when does the right for free speech end? A question experts and media professionals asked themselves during a workshop organised by the Council of Europe in Budapest this November. A place with symbolic character as we soon should understand, as at the same time Márton Gyöngyösi, the deputy group leader of the Jobbik, a far right group in Hungary, made headlines around the world when he asked for a list of Jews who pose “a national threat” in the Hungarian parliament.

As a European citizen I often consider it common sense that tolerance and respect for the equal dignity of all human beings constitute the foundations of a pluralistic society. That being so, as a matter of principle it may be considered necessary in certain democratic societies to sanction or even prevent all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote or justify hatred based on intolerance. The mistake made by free speech fundamentalists today is to regard speech as nothing but harmless words. Hate speech however, is a complex concept and one might find it very difficult to find a universally accepted definition or understanding. Beyond the prohibition of certain language in international conventions, there are people who believe that each nation will have to determine what it considers to be unacceptable language or not.

Austrian judiciary for example uses laws prohibiting speech promoting Nazi activities and is considered widely inappropriate. This law is considered necessary from an Austrian perspective, as this speech may represent a nascent but real threat to the future of democracy and liberty. Other countries however do not have these laws and would most probably consider them troubling. One particular problem with criminalizing any type of speech is that you set a precedent: certain ideas and expressions are made out of bounds, and it becomes easier to decide that other ideas should be out of bounds as well. Obama. “Efforts to restrict speech,” he warned the U.N., “can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”


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