On 11 March 2020, the School of Law of UCLan Cyprus held a Roundtable discussion on “Does the ECHR really protect the ‘right to offend, shock or disturb’? A critical assessment of the European Court of Human Right´s hate speech case law”. The discussion was led by Dr Jacob Mchangama, who is the Founder and Executive Director of Justitia and a visiting fellow at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Washington. Justitia is a judicial think tank based in Denmark, which aims to promote the rule of law and fundamental human rights and freedom rights both within Denmark and abroad by educating and influencing policy experts, decision-makers, and the public. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the event took place entirely online via MS Teams.
The Roundtable began with a Welcome Address by Professor Stéphanie Laulhé Shaelou, Head of the School of Law of UCLan Cyprus. Professor Laulhé Shaelou introduced the topic by presenting Justitia and the ‘Future of Free Speech’ project, which set the background of Dr Mchangama’s discussion. Emphasising the importance of the topic within the context of the current climate of rising populism, she set the stage for the discussion that was to follow. After the welcome address, Ms Andrea Manoli and Dr Andreas Marcou offered brief comments introducing the JMM EU-POP running at UCLan Cyprus and drawing the link between the rise of populism across the European Union and the proliferation of hate speech. Crucially, they touched on the critical dilemmas posed by weighing, on the one hand rights associated with democracy and free speech and, on the other hand, the urgency of protecting vulnerable groups who typically emerge as the targets of hate speech. All these issues were further explored by Dr Mchangama’s presentation.
Dr Mchangama began by exploring the critical issues that exist in relation to free speech and democracy, considering, in particular, the concepts of militant democracy and the extent to which a democracy should allow speech that is hateful, threatening of minorities, or undermining of democracy. Having explored the use of free speech and its limits within contemporary democracies, Dr Mchangama proceeded to critically evaluate the way the European Court of Human Rights has treated cases involving hate speech. There is, he argued, a lack of conceptual clarity on how the European Court of Human Rights views and deals with hate speech cases, evident by the Court’s failure to develop a definition of what amounts to hate speech. Although the Court has recognised that the right to free speech ought to extend to the right to offend, shock, or disturb, an analysis of relevant case law shows that the Court’s approach to protecting such rights is inconsistent.
After Dr Mchangama’s presentation, Dr Natalie Alkiviadou, a Senior Research Fellow at Justitia demonstrated the use of a Hate Speech Case Database, created for ‘The Future of Hate Speech’ project. The database offers a unique collection of various UN and European Court of Human Rights cases related to hate speech. The platform allows the user to classify such cases on the basis of their theme (e.g., cases of hate speech directed at LGBTQ persons) or by country (e.g., hate speech cases against France). The database emerges as a salient tool for all interested in following developments in hate-speech-related case law. You may visit it here: https://futurefreespeech.com/
Even though the Roundtable took place entirely online, it managed to fulfil its stated aims by offering vital insights into how the European Court of Human Rights treats questions of hate speech and how it seeks to protect the rights to offend, shock, and disturb. The discussion that followed Dr Mchangama’s presentation raised further critical issues such as the different approaches adopted by different international courts, the rationale behind distinctive approaches to issues of hate speech, and the difficulty of maintaining consistency in the treatment of cases related to hate speech in light of linguistic and other obstacles. The arguments and ideas explored during the Roundtable go to the heart of a democratic society and reveal much about the role of the judiciary in protecting free speech. The Closing Address proposed by Professor Stéphanie Laulhé Shaelou reiterated these points.
A Certificate of Attendance was awarded to all participants.