Exclusive Recordings of Conference That Crafted Anti-Free Speech Laws
Twenty-three years ago, a three-day conference was held at Hofstra University (New York’s largest private college). It was an international gathering of legal scholars, and they had gathered for one purpose – to determine the most effective method to criminalize speech that is considered “offensive” to minority ethnic, racial, and religious groups. Scholars from Europe, Australia, and Canada gave talks on the successes and failures of European attempts to criminalize “offensive” speech, and some of the most influential legal scholars in the U.S. spoke about their desire to see such speech restrictions enacted here.
The main goal of the conference was to choose a model statute criminalizing all “offensive” speech. That model statute would be used to strengthen anti-speech laws in Europe, and (eventually) create anti-speech laws in the U.S.
Today, “hate speech” laws are being used to stifle honest and open debate in Europe regarding the threat posed by radical Islam. Again and again, those who oppose the Islamists are dragged into court for the “crime” of offending Muslims. Whatever their original intent, these “hate speech” laws are now being used to protect Islamic extremism from criticism.
So we at the Republican Party Animals thought this would be a good time to release the audio recordings of the Hofstra conference – audio recordings that have never before been made public.
We’ll be releasing several hours of these recordings per week, starting today with the least-known of the speeches made at the conference – the keynote speech, given by one of the most influential Democrats in Congress.
But to step back for a moment, let’s look at the history of the Hofstra conference.
In the early 1980s, laws that criminalize “hate speech” were becoming increasingly popular in Europe, Canada, and Australia. At the time, those laws were primarily aimed at Holocaust deniers, who were becoming not only more vocal, but more sophisticated in their methods, eschewing clumsy Der Stürmer-style anti-Jewish propaganda in favor of slick pseudo-historical and pseudo-scientific arguments aimed at painting the Holocaust as a Jewish “hoax.”
Laws that criminalized Holocaust denial quickly popped up in countries like Germany, France, and Canada, as debate raged as to whether or not such laws were appropriate. Some free speech advocates used the “slippery slope” argument, warning that if Holocaust denial, however odious, is banned because it’s offensive, other types of speech will end up banned as well.
And, indeed, some proponents of hate speech laws had that very notion in mind. By the late ‘80s, a steady influx of immigrants from Muslim nations, and several high-profile controversies involving the abuse of lax amnesty laws in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, had provoked the ire of European conservatives. Many European liberals became convinced that broader speech criminalization laws were needed to silence critics of Muslim immigration.
Several European countries already had laws on the books that targeted “hate speech,” but those laws were often confusing, vague, and arbitrarily applied. Many of the laws that criminalized Holocaust denial were useless in prosecuting speech critical of Muslims. Germany’s anti-denial law specifically targeted what it referred to as “defamation of the dead” (defaming the memory of the Holocaust’s victims). This law was too narrow to be applied to critics of Islam. Canada had been prosecuting Holocaust deniers under an arcane, colonial-era law against spreading “false news.” However, in 1985, that law took a huge hit when neo-Nazi Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel’s conviction under the “false news” law was overturned (Zundel would again be convicted of violating the false news law in 1988, and, again, his conviction would be overturned when the Canadian Supreme Court ruled the false news law to be unconstitutional).
To further the effort to craft speech criminalization laws that could A) pass constitutional muster in their respective countries, and B) “protect” all minority ethnic, religious, and racial groups, an international conference was convened at Hofstra University, April 2oth through the 22nd, 1988.
The aim of the conference, which was co-sponsored by several minority advocacy groups (including the NAACP), was to explore the use of “group defamation” laws (the expansion of defamation laws to include speech directed not at a specifically-named individual, but at an identifiable “group” of individuals) to criminalize speech.
The centerpiece of the conference would be the unveiling of the ideal group defamation model statute, which could be used as the basis for future speech criminalization laws. Law students from across the country were invited to submit their own model statutes. The winning statute would be decided by the conference’s attendees, and given a “test run” in a moot court with Columbia Law School Vice Dean (and former Director-Counsel of the NAACP) Jack Greenberg acting as prosecutor, and celebrity lawyer Alan Dershowitz acting for the defense.
The judges would be Abner Mikva of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and Amalya Kearse of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
As an additional bonus, the winning submission would fetch $1,500 for its author (about $3,000 in 2010 dollars).
In a letter to then-Missouri-Kansas City School of Law student Devin House, conference director Monroe Freedman (the Dean of Hofstra Law School) explained the purpose of the model statute:
“We are looking for a model statute outlawing group defamation, that is, one that would permit prior restraint by public officials of speech that is defamatory of any minority group. The statute should be as broad as the drafters conclude is constitutionally permissible or, at least, arguably permissible; at the same time, it should include whatever limitations or conditions are considered essential to satisfy constitutional requirements. An accompanying legislative report should set forth the legislature’s grounds for concluding that the statute is necessary, the legislature’s purpose in enacting the statute, and the legislature’s reasoning in drafting the statute as broadly/narrowly as it is.” (November 16, 1987; copy supplied by Devin House)
For three days, legal scholars and minority activists addressed the issue of creating and implementing group defamation laws. Not every speaker at the conference was in favor of the idea; several came to argue against it. But the overwhelming majority of speakers argued for the necessity of such laws.
At the close of the conference, the winning model statute was chosen. The moot court was held, and (not surprisingly) the “defendant,” a fictional white racist named Jesse Stump, was convicted using the model statute.
The statute (which can be viewed as a PDF file here: ModelStatute) had proven its viability in a moot court presided over by two U.S. Court of Appeals justices, with two renowned constitutional law experts as prosecutor and defense attorney.
Since the Hofstra conference, group defamation laws have become the norm in Europe and elsewhere in the West. They have been used primarily to prosecute (some would say persecute) opponents of radical Islam (in one recent high-profile case, Dutch politician and Islam critic Geert Wilders was prosecuted under the Netherlands’ group defamation law). And there has been no shortage of attempts to enact such laws in the U.S. As Southern University legal scholar Thomas David Jones notes in his book Human Rights: Group Defamation, Freedom of Expression and the Law of Nations:
“Although there exists no federal group defamation law in the United States, a few state legislatures have promulgated group defamation statutes, while a cause of action for group defamation has been recognized as justiciable in the decision law of other states.”
As recently as 2009, NYU Law School Professor Thomas Waldron, lecturing at Harvard as part of that university’s Oliver Wendell Holmes Lectures Series, vigorously advocated bringing group defamation laws to the U.S. Waldron lamented that, outside the U.S., group defamation laws are
“common and widely accepted (though not uncontroversial). For us, that gives rise to a question about what the European or Canadian or New Zealand legislators think they are doing with these laws. Why have most liberal democracies undertaken to prohibit these manifestations of hatred, these visible defamations of social groups, rather than permitting and tolerating them in the name of free speech?”
Waldron specifically stressed the need to enact group defamation laws in order to “protect” Muslim Americans.
In 1995, to commemorate the impact of the Hofstra conference, Greenwood Press published a collection of essays by the conference’s participants (“Group Defamation and Freedom of Speech”). As is frequently the case when academic conferences are published in book form, the participants were allowed to re-edit their original speeches, changing them and updating them. As a result, the essays published in the book are not the same as the speeches that were recorded during the conference.
Oddly, nowhere in the book did it mention the conference’s keynote speaker, Democratic Congressman John Conyers Jr. Not only was Conyers’ speech left out of the book, his very participation in the event was completely omitted.
Perhaps the fact that a United States Congressman (who, after all, had taken an oath to uphold the Constitution) had taken part in a conference the stated goal of which was to limit First Amendment freedoms was not something Conyers was comfortable publicizing.
Whatever the reason, Conyers’ participation in the conference was completely wiped from the record. The audio tape of Conyers’ speech is the sole piece of actual evidence that he was there.
You can hear his speech here.
In a related article, the man who wrote the model statute that won the approval of the assembled legal minds at the conference (including the two U.S. Court of Appeals justices) was recently disbarred for misconduct. That article can be seen here.