Freedom of expression in Europe – Who draws the line?

On Wednesday 16th of May, World Youth Alliance Europe attended the Forum “Freedom of expression in Europe – Who draws the line?” organized by EURACTIV. During this panel discussion, the speakers addressed many issues related to the right of freedom of expression and debated the definition of Hate Speech with its legal, ethical and social implications.

In Europe, hate speech laws are spreading, in particular when it comes to the online platforms. One of the latest European Union achievement is the Code of conduct on illegal online hate speech, adopted after the 2015 terroristic events.

The Commission has been working with social media companies to ensure that hate speech is tackled online similarly to other media channels. This is mostly done through the development of take-down procedures that are not regulated in detail.

A “notice-and-action” procedure begins when someone notifies a hosting service provider – for instance a social network, an e-commerce platform or a company that hosts websites – about illegal content on the internet (for example, racist content, child abuse content or spam) and is concluded when a hosting service provider acts against the illegal content.

Vĕra Jourová, EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers, and Gender Equality, said “This agreement is an important step forward to ensure that the internet remains a place of free and democratic expression, where European values and laws are respected”, but she also recognized the need to find a balance between the European soft law and what happens at the national level. In Germany, for example, a hate speech law has lately passed that fines IT companies up to €50 million if they do not comply with it, removing “hateful content” in a good time. Yet, what does exactly mean “hateful” and who is supposed to define it?

Joachim Steinhofel, German lawyer, was one of the first to criticize the German Network Enforcement Act, claiming the new law to be “an assault to free speech” and unconstitutional – also according to eight out of the ten experts called to give advice about the new law in the German Parliament.

Even if these laws seem to foster a peaceful communication and discourse, many free speech advocates, lawyers, scholars, and journalists warn of the limitation to this human right. Nadine Strossen, Former President of the American Civil Liberties Union and Professor of Law at the New York Law School, stressed on the need to combat hate speech with counter-speech. In her opinion, this is much more effective than censoring speech we disagree with.

Another interesting issue is the one regarding the right of freedom of expression linked to the spreading of fake news online. According to the latest studies, more than 70% of European citizens read news only from online newspaper and platforms, and this definitely does not help in fighting this trend. Still, is censorship the right tool to be used in order to contrast it?

According to Christophe Leclercq, Founder of EURACTIVE, we should “avoid censorship, dilute fake news with quality”, that means: let the fake news stay online but prioritize true contents in an online research.

As one of the most basic human right, freedom of speech cannot be limited in favor of political correctness. World Youth Alliance believes in the need to fight hate speech, discrimination, intolerance, and violence within the society but cannot support a system leading to the restriction of freedom of expression.

Written by Giorgia Altavilla, an intern in the WYA Europe office.