Freedom of Speech and Hate Speech – Before and Today

In both American and European academic debates on the legal nature of hate speech arguments of historical-legal character are frequently overlooked. In fact, hate speech is not a contemporary “invention”. The content of this term was defined more than 150 years ago in the legal codes of absolutist monarchies, e.g. in the Austrian Criminal Code of 1852. This served as the basis for penal repression aimed in the Austrian constitutional monarchy at opposition media outlets, nationalist as well as socialist. Curbing hate speech in the Habsburg Monarchy had the characteristics of repressive censorship, widely used under what was called the objective criminal procedure that led to limiting the constitutional freedoms of speech and press, authorized by the December Constitution of 1867. The historical example of the Austrian monarchy shows that hate speech as a legal construct is placed in opposition to freedoms of speech and press. Correct construction and accurate application of vague and underdetermined terms employed by legislation penalizing hate speech is contingent upon the „sensitivity” of the judges. Austrian courts were careful in examining allegations of verbal attacks motivated by one’s hostility towards an ethnic, national, religious or political group. Juries, which would often acquit the accused, were motivated by a concern that the authorities may take advantage of the law governing hate speech to contain the spread of opinions disapproved thereby. As a consequence, Austrian prosecution pleaded their case before a court comprised of jurors exceptionally rarely in hate speech cases (so-called subjective procedure). Denouncements of governments’ inadequacy in fighting hate crimes see to overlooked the danger triggered by penal repression founded on laws on hate speech. Troubles induced by construction thereof have been espoused in the judgments of the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany.

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