The Fallacies of Applying the UN Hate Speech Definition to Literature

Kenny Brechner - February 25, 2022

In applying the United Nations’ hate speech definition to suppress works of literature, the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and the Independent Book Publishers Association (IBPA) are engaging, with considerable and unhappy irony, in a fictional narrative in which they are actively employing an objective standard for censoring books. The central fallacy here is the understanding of these professional literary organizations that the UN supports using its hate speech definition as a standard for suppressing speech, which it  explicitly does not. Secondarily, their exercise of censorship is marred by the fact that the UN hate speech definition is overtly intended as a standard to be applied to direct interpersonal communication, not literature.  

In introducing its definition, the UN notes that “[a]ddressing hate speech does not mean limiting or prohibiting freedom of speech. It means keeping hate speech from escalating into something more dangerous, particularly incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence, which is prohibited under international law.” This definition is markedly similar to the United States’ First Amendment, which only restricts speech which would directly incite violence or provoke a violent act from a reasonable person.

The document  goes on to state clearly that the legal, or censorship component, of hate speech requires the presence of incitement. “Rather than prohibiting hate speech as such, international law prohibits the incitement  to discrimination, hostility and violence (referred to here as ‘incitement’). Incitement is a very dangerous form of speech, because it explicitly and deliberately aims at triggering discrimination, hostility and violence, which may also lead to or include terrorism or atrocity crimes. Hate speech that does not reach the threshold of incitement is not something that international law requires States to prohibit. It is important to underline that even when not prohibited, hate speech may to be harmful.”

After talking about the undeniably deleterious effects of hate speech, the UN document goes on to state that their hate speech “strategy and its implementation [is] to be in line with the right to freedom of opinion and expression. The UN supports more speech, not less, as the key means to address hate speech.”

In short, the UN hate speech strategy clearly supports First Amendment protection of free speech. The ABA and IBPA have nonetheless built their justification for engaging in censorship directly on following the UN hate speech definition. IBPA, as discussed by Mel Corrigan in her resignation letter from IBPA’s Advocacy Committee insists that its members “not publish works of hate speech or works that encourage discrimination, oppression, or violence.” She demonstrates clearly that IBPA’s use of the hate speech definition is not aimed at interpersonal conversation, but rather at published works.

The ABA, which has a clear code of conduct in place for interpersonal communication, has announced publicly, at the 2/7/2022 Town Hall and most recently in this ABA First Amendment FAQ, that it is employing the UN hate speech definition to determine which books to oppose and seek to suppress.

Apart from the bedrock misuses of the UN standard as a means to constrict speech, the organizations are also engaged in the fallacy of resting upon the definition as an objective standard, which it is anything but.  

Here is the definition in full: “[A]ny kind of communication in speech, writing or behaviour, that attacks or uses pejorative or discriminatory language with reference to a person or a group on the basis of who they are, in other words, based on their religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, colour, descent, gender or other identity factor.”

As stated earlier, the UN definition is intended for interpersonal communication, not literature. Who can say to what extent a character is speaking with an author’s voice? The narrator of Notes from the Underground is in constant violation of the UN definition for example. Almost any book could be found to contain hate speech. Calls for censorship have accentuated the problematic nature of determining authorial intent. The campaign to suppress Laurie Forest’s  The Black Witch, for example, was built around quoting statements made by a particular character, a young woman raised in a racist fantasy realm, who had imbibed the prejudices of her environment. The character undergoes an awakening, however the calls to suppress The Black Witch were based on taking her early statements literally and entirely out of context. The UN hate speech definition is neither intended nor practical as a judicious means to censor speech. It’s use in that regard is simply a means to justify the censorship of books and ideas deemed offensive, rather than doing the work of responding to offensive speech with more speech, as the UN itself recommends.

(Note: I am a former ABA Board member who resigned over free speech issues.)

3 thoughts on “The Fallacies of Applying the UN Hate Speech Definition to Literature

  1. Carol Chittenden

    The ABA Board’s statement seems to ignore the distinction between Free Speech and Speech Content. It dims the light of an organization that has so long been a beacon of freedom for marginalized voices.
    I am saddened.
    Carol Chittenden, retired owner, Eight Cousins, Falmouth, MA


    Once again, Kenny gets it right. It’s a shame that the ABA, in its zeal to suppress speech it doesn’t like, doesn’t understand the first amendment. Apparently, they are smarter than our founders.

  3. Jack McKeown

    Kudos to Kenny B. for continuing to champion a broad definition of free speech, consistent with the U.S. Constitution, and not a narrow-band, highly subjective and politicized interpretation as put forward by the “new” ABA. I would like to point out that a majority of the member states of the UN are either full blown autocracies or so-called hybrid oligarchies. To rely on the UN’s definition of hate speech versus the liberty-affirming standard enshrined in our founding documents is to embark on the slippery slope to censorship, to which the publishing and bookselling communities should be universally opposed.
    Jack McKeown, retired publishing CEO and independent bookstore owner.


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