The executive editor of Estonian World, Sten Hankewitz, is calling out the advocacy on criminalising “hate speech”, saying that if you curb the freedom of speech, then you’re curbing basic human rights, not advancing them.
According to the latest report by the Estonian Human Rights Centre, the human rights situation in Estonia has deteriorated in the last two years. While the centre’s report has many extremely valid, valuable points, there’s one that anyone who values one fundamental human right – the right to free speech – cannot agree with.
The latest human rights report emphasises that “successive governments [in Estonia] have not taken measures to counter hate speech”. Moreover, in the subsequent opinion piece, the executive director of the Estonian Human Rights Centre, Egert Rünne, attacks the reluctance of the current Estonian government to criminalise “hate speech”.
He claims the government is “letting hate be spread. Nothing has been done to prevent hate speech and make our society safer for all.”
Let’s start from the Estonian constitution. Article 45 of it clearly states that “there is no censorship”. While it’s not the exact equivalent of the U.S. constitution’s First Amendment, it still clearly points out that anyone is free to disseminate ideas, opinions and convictions in every available way.
It does have a stipulation. “This right can be curbed for the reasons of public order, morality, other people’s rights and freedoms, health, honour and good name,” the article says.
But where does one’s right to say things stop and another person’s honour and good name start?
Everyone knows it’s not nice to offend another person. A decent human being doesn’t do things like that. The constitution of the Republic of Estonia also clearly specifies that no one can be discriminated based on pretty much anything (conspicuously leaving out sexual orientation from the list, though, but it does say “other circumstances” – bless it).
But a decent human being doesn’t succumb to the level of racism, sexism, or any other form of discrimination. We’re supposed to be individual beings, and we’re supposed to judge other people by their individual traits. If a person is an asshole, we judge them as an asshole.
Every person is a person
That being said, we’re also surrounded by people who are dumb enough not to understand individualism, who are dumb enough not to understand that every person is a person. There are people who hate groups of people for no reason. “Oh, I hate niggers.” “Jews to the oven!” “Goddamn fags everywhere.” Etc. Etc.
It’s hateful. And it’s hurtful. If I had a nickel for every instance the phrase “Jews to the oven” has been said to me, I’d probably have a good twenty bucks. Back in the day, this was a prevalent phrase to offend the Jews in the Estonian media’s commentary boards.
Being Jewish, it hurts. Even if you’ve grown a very thick skin.
But taking away people’s right to be morons is worse. If we take away people’s right to be morons, how would we know they’re morons, so that we could stay away from them? Isn’t it our fundamental right to be as smart or as stupid as we are?
The freedom of speech has its limitations. We, indeed, cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theatre because that puts other people’s lives at risk. But if an idiot hates groups of people – or just people – because of qualities they can’t change – be it their race, sexuality, nationality, religion, ethnicity, whatnot – then that person’s words should be as free as anyone else’s. Let the idiot show to the world that they’re an idiot.
Uncurbed freedom of speech is a fundamental human right
It seems that the people who are eager to criminalise “hate speech” (whatever it might be, because it’s always subjective) are forgetting the hoodie worn by the former president of Estonia, Kersti Kaljulaid. Didn’t she present a clear message to the Estonian parliament and the Estonian people with the “Speech is free” label on her hoodie? Is speech free then only when it suits certain groups, and not free when it doesn’t?
People often attribute this quote to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” It wasn’t actually Voltaire. Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote that to summarise Voltaire’s attitude towards curbing free speech. But the attitude remains.
The United States put a provision against curbing the freedom of speech in the very first amendment of its constitution. Estonia, who had been occupied by one of the most repressive regimes of the 20th century, after restoring its independence from it, clearly specified in its constitution that there is no censorship.
Total, uncurbed freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. Criminalising any speech takes human rights away, it doesn’t expand or amplify them. If one right can be taken away, so can be they all.
Everyone has the right to freely express themselves. Everyone. And that’s how it should be.
The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash.