Technology, Speech, Hate, Virtuality … and the Path of the Law

by Mark Drumbl

[Mark A. Drumbl is the Class of 1975 Alumni Professor of Law and Director, Transnational Law Institute at Washington and Lee University.]

Atrocity Speech Law is a hefty book. It is, as Professor Gordon himself describes it, a ‘tome’. Atrocity Speech Law is rigorous and ambitious: packed with information, breathtakingly detailed, brimming with integrity, and vivified by important themes of law reform. In contrast to the absurd invective it seeks to deter, Gregory’s arguments are measured and modulated, poised and principled.

Although Gregory has invested so much in this book, and the book contains so much, he also is wisely modest that much more remains to be said. So I want to say something about one thing Gregory has identified as something that remains to be said, and then I want to say something about something else that he hasn’t identified as such.

But, first, to the core argument: Gregory posits that atrocity speech law exists but is hampered by the fact it is fragmented. The fragmentation, I would hasten to add, is not deliberate or intentional. Like much of law, the law regulating atrocity speech emerged by virtue of bricolage. That said, and however charmingly organic, bricolage quickly brushes up against important limits: concerns over coherence, predictability, and consistency. In fact, simply by labeling the issue at hand as ‘atrocity speech’, Gregory already contributes structure and parsimony, in that the regulation of speech that encourages violence currently remains cobbled together from various specific crimes such as incitement to genocide, hate speech, ordering, instigation, and persecution as a crime against humanity. By advancing arguments of unification and codification (he proposes a draft convention on atrocity speech), Gregory situates himself within a venerable tradition of international law-making. Although I often find myself attracted to (a bit of) messiness, and believe the value of Cartesian organization in the world of law may be overrated and too hungrily stated, Gregory makes a very compelling case for his vision.

Gregory gestures ahead near the end of the book. He points to historical research, denial, sentencing, and empirical inquiry on the actual effects of hate speech as areas for further research. Among these, I think that sentencing is of particular salience. Gregory finds unexplainable variation among sentences issued for hate speech crimes at the international level.  I am not surprised. I have long questioned the rationalities of sentencing at the international criminal courts and tribunals and the operational coherence of the sentences that actually are issued. Although greater predictability has arisen over time, which is good to see, pockets of concern persist. Assembling together the various crimes that involve speech, which Gregory has done, and providing a heuristic of sentences for these crimes, which Gregory also has done, exposes these underdeveloped aspects of sentencing. Although retribution and deterrence are taken as the two major goal of international sentencing, as re-announced recently by the ICC in Bemba and Al Mahdi, how would these goals apply in the case of atrocity speech? Can persons convicted for speech crimes be rehabilitated? Are they in a position, unlike other criminals, to undo what they had done, to disclaim what they had claimed, to correct the record, to retract, to unwind? If so, how could these remedies form part of the punitive schematic?

Turning now to the something not spoken of: Atrocity Speech Law largely absents conversations about technology. This surprises me. The book has a bit of a last century vibe to it. Sure, some societies are more technologically embedded and uploaded than others, but we are all well beyond newspapers and radio broadcasts. Our world is less one of RTML and Kangura and megaphones and Nuremberg rallies than it is one of social media, anonymous (and instantaneous) information, and virality; of YouTube and the internet; of ‘fake news’ and doctored events; of Instagram and Facebook and  Twitter and Whatsapp and Iphones. Widespread and systematic access to the Web, so to speak, permits everyone to become a speaker (anonymous or otherwise) and to be heard. So hate speech metastasizes much faster than ever before, it can stain so many listeners so quickly, and can become pandemic. Anyone with an internet connection can start it.  State-run television, cable given over to the interests of an ideology, and the press each certainly and assuredly is important. But I would wish to hear from Gregory as to how his (re)construction of atrocity speech law would map onto these new virtual media which definitively change how and through whom and from where ‘information’ is obtained.  How does technology challenge (or not) the many legal elements of the crime?

Gregory closes his book with an appeal for both application of penal law and preventative measures. So, then, preventatively, how to ventilate the spaces of the Web in which ‘speakers’ vent their furor? Is social host liability, liability for providing space, an answer? If so, what further cascades might such liability present for freedom of expression? Any vexation? What opportunities for reparations? What can we learn from internet regulation domestically, for example, when virtuality is used to cyberbully or humiliate individuals?

Gregory’s book is a tour-de-force. We are all the better for it. We are lucky to have him, and his work, to guide us through these rapidly growing thickets.

http://opiniojuris.org/2017/07/13/technology-speech-hate-virtuality-and-the-path-of-the-law/

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