Politics & Policy

Why Is the Federal Government Promoting Censorship Abroad?

(BigNazik/Getty Images)
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s legitimization of ‘hate speech’ restrictions undermines American principles and foreign policy.

The United States supports a robust view of free speech and does not recognize any government ability to restrain so-called hate speech. Instead, the U.S. Supreme Court has held repeatedly that government attempts to restrict “hate speech” — as opposed to incitement to violence or defamation — violate the First Amendment and are inevitably vague and arbitrary. American foreign policy should be, and for a long time has been, based on the same principles of free expression.

Why, then, is a U.S. human-rights commission promoting international censorship of “hate speech” and advocating for expanding the power of social-media companies to that end?

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is the legislative commission tasked with monitoring the state of religious freedom outside our shores. Last month, the USCIRF held a hearing on “Combating Online Hate Speech and Disinformation Targeting Religious Communities.” It is certainly despicable when any religious community is targeted by violent threats and defamatory material, and the commission is right to highlight the vicious threats that religious persons worldwide often receive, which are shocking but all too common.

But what the USCIRF says on the subject of religious freedom largely represents the American perspective to the international world, which makes its promotion of “hate speech” restrictions troubling.

The hearing did not just focus on violent threats, defamation, and harassment intended to suppress religious expression. Instead, it promoted empowering the largest social-media companies, in conjunction with the entire array of government and international institutions, to implement censorship and “content moderation” regimes under an expansively broad definition of “hate speech.” While the commission is bipartisan, not a single invited speaker was skeptical of the far-reaching anti–“hate speech” agenda being promoted at the United Nations. None of them spoke up in defense of robust free expression. And only one out of the nine commissioners expressed concern that “hate speech” moderation was used as a tool primarily to silence controversial views. While the USCIRF and the speakers themselves admitted that no clear or widely accepted definition of “hate speech” even exists in international law, there was no attempt made to reckon with the implications of that fact.

Neither the USCIRF commissioners nor the speakers at the hearing mentioned how the U.S., since its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), a major U.N. human-rights treaty, has objected to the use of vague speech restrictions common throughout much of the rest of the world to stifle free speech. Upon its ratification of the ICCPR, the U.S. entered a reservation against it, specifying that the ICCPR did not authorize or require any legislation or other American government action that would “restrict the right of free speech and association protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Yet the hearing presented “hate speech” restrictions as uncontested and required by international human-rights law.

The hearing was just one event, of course. But its legitimization of “hate speech” restrictions comes as horrific terror attacks carried out by Islamic extremists in France have made the protection of free expression a matter of great urgency, and as international attempts to implement such restrictions are increasing. Last year, the United Nations unveiled its “Strategy and Plan of Action on Hate Speech,” which calls for the U.N. to “strengthen partnerships with new and traditional media to address hate speech narratives” and to engage social-media companies on how to “support UN principles and action to address and counter hate speech, encouraging partnerships between government, industry and civil society.”

Many countries that already use hate-speech laws against religious minorities would be all too happy to see the U.N.’s agenda succeed. Around the same time as the agenda was unveiled, Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan hosted an event at the U.N. General Assembly calling for greater restraints on “hate speech.”

Neither Pakistan nor Turkey is well-known for protecting religious freedom. But the U.S. is, and if it wants to continue to be, it must not promote speech-suppression measures abroad.

“Hate speech” is simply an unworkable and dangerous concept. The incantatory repetition of the word “hate” to stand for all manner of different kinds of speech needs to stop. Ideas should be debated and defended freely and honestly. No U.S. government body should suggest otherwise. Foreign governments that work in collaboration with social-media companies to develop “content moderation” regimes are only one step removed from censoring speech themselves. Congress needs to exercise its oversight authority and ensure that the USCIRF is not undermining the link between our bedrock American values and our long-standing foreign-policy aims.

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