Hate speech and hate crime - Norway's Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud’s Report

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Hate speech and hate crime have received increased attention in recent years and there is widespread consensus that these phenomena constitute a social problem with significant adverse effects. The Ombud has made a review of their status and has revealed a number of challenges and shortcomings with government efforts to counteract them.

With this report, the Ombud wishes to provide government with input on how best to work against hate speech and hate crime. We suggest that the government prepare a comprehensive national action plan to respond to the current challenges in an effective manner. This report is in two parts; the first part deals with hate speech and the second with hate crime. Any discussion on hate speech must start with the protection of the freedom of speech. Most speech is permissible in Norway and freedom of expression is an essential principle in Norwegian law.

However, this is not absolute. The Criminal Code prohibits certain types of serious hate speech, but there is a high threshold for a statement to be considered illegal. Social science research shows that both legal and illegal hate speech cause society and individuals major harm. If you want to fight the harm which both legal and the illegal hate speech inflict upon individuals and society, it is appropriate to have a definition of hate speech that includes both categories.

The Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud therefore operates from a broad, social science definition of hate speech – which covers both illegal and legal hate speech: Hate speech is degrading, threatening, harassing or stigmatising speech which affects an individual’s or a group’s dignity, reputation and status in society by means of linguistic and visual effects that promote negative feelings, attitudes and perceptions based on characteristics such as ethnicity, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender expression, gender identity and age.

Hate speech contributes to social exclusion and increased polarisation. Moreover, such speech intimidates people deterring them from speaking publically, and thus weaken democracy. Hate speech fans prejudice, creates fear and anxiety among the affected groups and it deprives people of dignity. Hate speech can therefore trigger discrimination and harassment and/or violence. Research from the Norwegian Police University College demonstrates a clear connection between hate speech on the internet and the capacity and willingness for violence.

International human rights impose a number of obligations upon Member States when it comes to combating hate speech. These obligations include (1) securing the principle of non-discrimination, (2) combating the underlying causes of discrimination, (3) taking proactive and preventive measures to realise the principle of equality and non-discrimination. Norway’s key commitments and recommendations arise from the UN Convention on Racial Discrimination, UN Women’s Discrimination Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

The government’s efforts to combat hate speech have been modest. This is partly because the focus has been on the distinction between criminal and lawful hate speech, and partly because the government has believed that the adverse effects of hate speech were neutralised through democracy and freedom of speech itself.

The Ombud’s proposal for a more proactive deterrence of hate speech is shared by actors from civil society and government, including the Oslo Police District. In 2014, the Action Plan against Radicalisation and Violent Extremism was established, which examines the most extreme forms of hate crime and hate speech.

The purpose is to prevent recruitment to violent extremism and the action plan outlines a series of proactive measures. This action plan is necessary and important, but it contains no coherent strategy regarding hate speech and it omits hate speech that is not motivated by extremism, such as hate speech motivated by sexual orientation, disability, gender, Sami origin, etc.

The Equality and Anti-Discrimination Ombud therefore recommends that the government prepare a comprehensive national action plan regarding the entire spectrum of hate speech, both legal and illegal, with regard to all the various bases that motivate hate speech. In this report, the Ombud proposes specific recommendations for such an action plan; see Section 2.1-2.5:

• Research on the nature, extent and effects of hate speech
• Strengthened efforts in schools
• The government’s obligation to actively promote equality
• Efforts to change attitudes
• Strengthening of civil society working with hate speech

Hate crimes are criminal acts or criminal speech that express intolerance and discrimination, i.e., motivated by hate or prejudice. Hate crime is not a legal term and there is no uniform definition internationally. The Oslo Police District defines hate crime as: “[…] offenses wholly or partly motivated by negative attitudes to a person’s actual or perceived ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender expression and/or disability. On equal footing are also criminal offenses motivated by negative attitudes, committed against persons whose political engagement
involve these categories.”

Hate crimes are a violation of the principle of equality and non-discrimination – a fundamental principle in the most significant human rights conventions. Member States therefore have a positive duty to combat hate crimes. Hate crimes attack the very identity of the victim, and may have consequences far beyond the person or persons directly affected by the crime. The perpetrator sends signals to the group that identifies with the victim that they should not feel safe. This in turn can prompt those identifying with the victim to change their behaviour because of fear or a sense of exclusion. There have been very few criminal cases involving hate crime in Norwegian courts. The cases that have been brought before the Supreme Court have mostly dealt with criminal speech.

Norway has never had a national action plan to combat hate crime. The National Police Directorate warns against underreporting and points out that registering hate crime is a challenge. The Ombud believes this reflects the lack of a unified national definition of hate crime and lack of knowledge about hate crime by the police.

In this report, the Ombud proposes specific recommendations to combat hate crime; see Section 4.1 to 4.8:

• National standard for registering hate crime
• Statistics on hate crime
• Uniform definition of hate crime
• Training of police and prosecutors
• Raising awareness with police, police procedures
• Hate crime in teaching and professional police education
• Strengthening of civil society working with hate crime
• Research on the nature, extent and effects of hate crime.
Year of publication: 
2015