In northwestern China, as many as three million members of ethnic minority groups have been imprisoned in concentration camps. Over one million of the imprisoned people are Uighurs, the largest minority group in China’s Xinjiang province. Torture is widespread in the concentration camps, and thousands have died in them. Uighur cemeteries have been destroyed in a campaign some have called cultural genocide.
For peacefully advocating a moral lifestyle, some Uighurs have been convicted of hate speech by China’s anti-religious regime. NBC News reports on the jailing of one man:
The court case of a Uighur man sheds light on the type of behavior that can lead to a stiff prison sentence.
The case file, written in Uighur, shows the man was sentenced to 10 years in prison for telling his fellow Uighur co-workers that it is not proper for Muslims to use foul language or watch pornography, and for urging them to eat halal food, which is prepared according to religious guidelines. The case file says the man dismissed Muslims who do not follow these practices as no better than nonbelievers.
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He was convicted of “incitement of ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination,” the documents says.
Using hate speech charges to punish criticism is not limited to China or foreign countries. In the U.S., Chinese students cried “hate speech” in response to criticism of China’s oppressive government. At the University of Missouri, they filed hate-speech complaints about political poster art critical of China’s mistreatment of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. The university responded by removing the pro-democracy art. The Kansas City Star reports:
The UMKC Chinese student email said their concerns were not so much related to the Hong Kong conflict but rather that the art work represented “hate speech.”
“Since UMKC offers students a friendly environment, students are able to freely express their opinions. Yet, I think it is still crucial to keep in mind that hate speech of any kind is not free speech,” the email said.
Such hate-speech charges exploit a broad definition of hate speech designed to censor free speech. If speech is defined as hate speech just because a group finds it hateful or offensive, then even truthful speech that is valuable can be banned as hate speech. Criticism of an oppressive foreign regime can be banned under a broad definition of hate speech. That’s because such criticism of a foreign government will disproportionately offend students from that country, who will tend to be drawn from its ruling class.
Progressive teachers unions are foolish. They support broad hate-speech definitions that make it easy to use hate-speech charges to silence truthful speech. In response to the 2016 presidential election, the American Federation of Teachers called on schools to ban hate speech. How did the AFT define hate speech? As it put it, “the American Bar Association defines hate speech as speech that offends, threatens, or insults groups, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, disability, or other traits.'” But the fact that the truth “offends” members of a group is not a reason to silence it, even if they view it as “hate speech.”
Such “hate speech” is protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a hate-speech ordinance that banned symbols that cause “anger, alarm, or resentment” in others based on their race, religion, or sex, in its ruling in R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992). In a later ruling, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its position that the First Amendment protects “hate speech.” In Matal v. Tam (2017), it stated that “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”
Despite this ruling, many Democratic politicians, such as Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, and Vermont Governor Howard Dean, have proclaimed that “Hate speech is not protected by the First Amendment.”
Hate speech bans restrict a broad array of speech about political or social topics. On progressive college campuses, students have been punished for a broad range of speech deemed “offensive” or “hostile” to people in particular groups: “students and campus newspapers have been charged with racial or sexual harassment for expressing commonplace views about racial or sexual subjects, such as criticizing feminism, affirmative action, sexual harassment regulations, homosexuality, gay marriage, or transgender rights, or discussing the alleged racism of the criminal justice system.”
Progressive members of Congress are pressuring social media companies to restrict hate speech. Hate speech in this context is apparently defined as “offensive words, about or directed toward historically victimized groups.” That definition is dangerously broad.
Sometimes, the truth itself is offensive to many people, especially to members of certain groups. But people should not remain silent about the truth merely because it offends listeners. As the Supreme Court noted in Texas v. Johnson, “If there is a bedrock principle underlying the First Amendment, it is that the government may not prohibit the expression of an idea simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”
As the character Legasov notes in the mini-series Chernobyl, “When the truth offends, we lie and lie until we can no longer remember that it is even there, but it is still there. Every lie we tell incurs a debt to the truth. Sooner or later, that debt is paid.”