The inaugural Max Watson Memorial Lecture was held at Wolfson College last night, when leading rights expert Professor Eric Heinze delivered a provocative and engaging discourse on the problems of banning hate speech in democratic societies.
In the lecture, entitled Hate Speech and Democratic Citizenship, Professor Eric Heinze, Professor of Law and Humanities at Queen Mary University London, argued that, rather than a form of ‘free speech absolutism’, he was instead arguing that no viewpoint-selective limits can be legitimately placed on public discourse, since this is a fundamental and essential component of democratic society itself.
Professor Heinze outlined the outlined the arguments in his forthcoming book, including the principle of higher order rights, before making a stirring defence of the position that, “Of all the higher order rights, free speech is the most democratic”.
In a nuanced and balanced lecture, Professor Heinze acknowledged that, “it is at times legitimate to limit democracy, in order to safeguard democracy”, citing the classic example of the ‘de-democratization’ of institutions such as the judiciary to safeguard the citizen from the dangers of mob rule and prejudice.
However, contrary to quasi-universal belief within most democracies, viewpoint-selective bans on speech serve in no way either to enhance human dignity or to safeguard democracy. States have more legitimate means of empowering the vulnerable, e.g., by toughening rules against discrimination at school, the workplace, or in the delivery of goods and services.
Turning to the empirical evidence to support his argument against bans on hate speech, Professor Heinze drew on his extensive research in Germany, France, the Netherlands, and Nordic countries, where ever-tougher sanctions on hate speech are being introduced, despite little evidence to suggest that they have any effect in reducing instances of hate speech in the countries concerned.
Through an extended and spirited audience Q&A session, Professor Heinze addressed a series of contemporary examples in which punitive measures may even exacerbate the effects of hate speech by making ‘martyrs’ out of the most prominent perpetrators, including prominent Holocaust deniers in Germany and Marine Le Pen, president of the National Front in France.
The lecture was opened by Professor Denis Galligan, who gave the introductory remarks to remember Max Watson’s life and work as a former FLJS Board Member, Wolfson College Fellow, and Senior Official at the IMF and EU.
A podcast of the lecture is available on our Podcast pages and from the link on the right, and a policy brief by Professor Heinze will be published in the coming months.