Banning Hate Speech Is The Wrong Response to Ireland’s Riots
A fast-tracked hate speech law curtails civil liberties without increasing police efficacy.
Our civil liberties often face their greatest threat after a calamity. Under pressure to “do something” after an attack or civil unrest, politicians regularly pledge to crack down on “hate speech” in an attempt to appease an understandably concerned public. After anti-immigrant riots broke out in Dublin last month, Irish officials have fast-tracked a pending bill that dishes out sentences as high as five years of prison for “hate speech” and have demanded further censorship of posts from social media companies.
On the afternoon of November 23, a deranged man stabbed three children and an adult caretaker outside a school in northeast Dublin. Three passersby intervened, successfully disarming and incapacitating the attacker. One of the victims, a five-year-old girl, sustained critical injuries.
As news of the attack spread, many social media users began baselessly speculating that the attacker was an illegal immigrant, or that the stabbing was an act of Islamic terrorism. Reports swirled and were amplified by Gript, a right-wing news site, that the attacker was an Algerian national. Authorities later announced the man had immigrated from Algeria but that he had come to Ireland more than 20 years ago and had since become a naturalized citizen. The hashtags “#IrelandIsFull” and “#IrelandBelongsToTheIrish” began trending.
Anti-immigrant sentiment in Ireland has been growing during the past years; many blame Ireland’s open borders—the nation of 5.6 million welcomed more than 100,000 immigrants last year—for a notable lack of affordable housing and other social problems. In 2019, anti-immigrant arsonists set fire to a hotel slated to hold asylum seekers. In January of this year, hundreds of protesters marched through the streets of Dublin chanting the anti-immigrant message, “There is no room.” In May, anti-immigrant activists claimed responsibility for burning tents in a refugee camp in Dublin. And in September, 13 people were arrested after nearly 200 protesters gathered outside the Dáil—the principal chamber of the Irish parliament—with banners decrying immigration and chanting, “You’ll never beat the Irish.”
Within hours of last month’s attack, anti-immigrant organizers on Telegram and X (formerly Twitter) had assembled hundreds of people in the area surrounding the stabbing. Towards evening, protesters pushed through the police cordon and some began punching police (Gardaí) officers. Violence escalated with the torching of, ultimately, eleven police vehicles, three buses, and a tram—and then with the looting of stores. By the time the Gardaí finally restored order many hours later, rioters had committed damage to the tune of around €20 million.
There is no question that Irish prosecutors should use every tool at their disposal to ensure that those individuals who committed acts of arson, theft, and assault be punished for their crimes.
But Irish officials have instead focused on decrying the country’s lack of laws on so-called hate speech, insisting that the solution is not proper police response to violence but deeper restrictions of free expression. “It’s now obvious to anyone who might have doubted it that our incitement to hatred legislation is just not up to date for the social media age,” Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in the aftermath of the event.
There are (as Natalie Alkiviadou and I have argued previously) two leading reasons to oppose hate speech legislation. First, the concept of hate speech is impossible to define with precision and any attempt to criminalize it inevitably leads to the suppression of democratic discourse. Second, these laws simply don’t work—while, all too often, backfiring against the marginalized people they aim to protect (with, for instance, Scottish police arresting LGBT activists at a Pride event for holding up a placard saying “These faggots fight fascists”). Decades of experience show that hate speech laws appear to have no efficacy in reducing intolerance.
In any case, how would a hate speech law have prevented these riots? It seems obvious that such a law would not have changed any of these protesters’ minds; most, if not all, already distrust the government, and what better way to cement that distrust than criminalizing their opinions? Moreover, when social media companies suspend users for hate speech, many migrate to less-restrictive, often anonymous, sites like Telegram and 4chan, where they are more easily radicalized.
I would also ask: Which of the rioters’ remarks—either in-person and online—would a hate speech law have prevented? The relevant text of the pending Irish “hate speech” bill states that a person violates the law if he or she “communicates material to the public … or behaves in a public place in a manner, that is likely to incite violence or hatred against a person or a group of persons on account of their protected characteristics” (e.g. national or ethnic heritage). Consider the most popular claim of the night, spoken and written by both violent and peaceful protesters: “Ireland is full.” Does this remark violate the pending bill? I doubt it, but I can only guess. The law is vague and overbroad.
If the anti-immigrant activists’ rallying cry of “Ireland is full” would not be deemed hate speech, why do Irish lawmakers believe a ban on hate speech would have prevented the riots? Without a doubt, some posts on social media or in person would have constituted a crime under the pending bill, but this to me seems like nothing more than arbitrarily policing word choice: a person can presumably legally decry immigration by saying “the housing shortage is caused by an influx of asylum seekers from Ukraine,” but they would be sent to jail for saying “Ukrainian refugees are stealing our homes,” because it seems to incite hatred against people on account of their national origin.
Meanwhile, officials lambasted X for failing to comply with their demands to remove content the night of the riots. (X disputes these facts, claiming they did not receive any requests from officials that night.) In any case, that seems like a remarkable deflection from the real issue. Policing failures were conspicuous during the riots, but police could only have benefited from the advance knowledge they had of the rally, with all plans publicly available on X rather than suppressed.
As so often is the case, government officials want to appear like they are doing something, even if their actions come at the expense of basic liberties like free speech and utterly fail to bring about any meaningful change. It is political grandstanding at its crudest.
Jeffrey Cieslikowski is a researcher focused on free expression.
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