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MythBusters: 4 false facts about hate crime

Hate crimes and hate speech still sound like a fictional or not serious enough problem to some people in Lithuania. By failing to recognize the essential features of these crimes, society not only avoids taking responsibility for intolerance, but also undermines the harm suffered by vulnerable groups.

So here are four common public attitudes towards hate crime, and we explain the fundamental mistakes that are made in fostering them.

Hate crimes are the same as other crimes

Hate crimes (crimes against people based on their age, gender, sexual orientation, disability, race, nationality, language, origin, social status, religion, beliefs or opinions) are a specific type of crime. What sets them apart from the rest is the motive. It is committed precisely because of the hatred felt towards a social group. his type of crime is more dangerous and damaging to society than, for example, theft, damage to property or any other crime not committed because of hatred towards a particular social group.

A hate crime targets the identity of a person or the group they represent. By committing a hate crime, the perpetrator sends the message that members of that group are not wanted in society. Even if only one or a few people are affected by a hate crime (e.g. a gay couple is attacked), it sends a signal to the whole community that the environment is not safe for them. In addition, hatred as a motive is considered an aggravating circumstance. The punishment for such an offence is harsher than it would be in the absence of a hate-related motive.

Hate crime is considered one of the most violent forms of discrimination. International institutions encourage states to take them very seriously, as if tolerated or even encouraged, they can turn into crimes against humanity (genocide, exile, etc.).

Hate speech is an expression of free speech

Freedom of speech is one of the fundamental human rights guaranteed by the Constitution of the Republic of Lithuania. According to the country’s most important document, a person can have his or her own convictions and express them without hindrance. However, this right is incompatible with criminal acts such as incitement to national, racial or other hatred, violence and discrimination.

Hate speech is an expression that disseminates, incites, promotes or justifies hatred against a person or group of persons on the basis of their personal identity, such as their nationality, race, gender, etc. The section of the Criminal Code that regulates incitement to hatred and discrimination protects the equal rights of the individual and the freedom of conscience. Persons who bully, ridicule, stigmatize, incite hatred or incite discrimination against (and violence against) a group of people or a person belonging to that group commit an offence by violating the equal rights of the victims, their honor and dignity. They create an intimidating and frightening environment. They are liable to a fine, restriction of freedom, arrest or imprisonment.

Freedom of speech and expression, although a fundamental human right, is not absolute. It ends where violations of others’ rights begin. The prohibition of hate speech is not the only legitimate restriction on freedom of expression. For example, information published in the public domain must not disparage, ridicule or humiliate a person or disseminate false information about them. It is also forbidden to publish information that calls for a change in the constitutional order of Lithuania, or that threatens the country’s independence or territorial integrity. Incitement to terrorist attacks, advocacy of pornography, defamation of national symbols, etc. are considered to be undisclosed information.

Only gays are protected from “insults”

Hate crimes target a person or a group of persons who are more vulnerable because of their historical and social context in society. Groups with a history of discrimination, hate crimes and other forms of intolerance (e.g. Jews, Roma, people with disabilities) are protected additionally. When classifying groups as protected ones, it is also important to take into account the current situation. According to public opinion polls, some minority communities are still disliked, perceived as inferior and not equal in rights, and therefore, the representatives of such communities are at a greater risk of verbal or physical attacks.

LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people are still one of the most disadvantaged groups in society. There are many hateful comments on the internet, and people are insulted or even attacked in the street because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. As the discrimination faced by the LGBT+ community is widely discussed in the public dominion (Lithuania has been criticized internationally for its failure to ensure equal rights for LGBT people), hate crimes against this group are also gaining more attention.

According to the official statistics for 2019–2020, the highest number of registered cases of incitement to hatred is based on sexual orientation. The LGBT+ community is therefore a protected group for a reason. However, sexual orientation is only one of the bases for defining groups protected from hate crime and hate speech. The list of grounds (identity characteristics) is longer and includes age, gender, disability, race, nationality, language and other characteristics listed in the Criminal Code. It is clear that the range of people protected by law from stigmatization is truly broad. The louder we speak out about all forms of hatred, the safer country we will live in.

Criticism of state institutions is also hate speech

Fierce criticism of politicians, public officials and institutions is sometimes called incitement to hatred or hate speech. Although critical comments, notes and images may be rude, unethical and sometimes illegal (e.g. libel, defamation), this is not the same as hate speech.

The Criminal Code prohibits incitement to hatred against vulnerable social groups, defined by personal identity. This is an exhaustive list, and public figures, defined by their position, nature of their work or their public responsibilities, are not included in this list.

In Lithuania, everyone has the right to criticize the activities of state and municipal institutions, bodies and officials in public and without prosecution. Public officials (politicians, state or municipal officials, etc.) are more open to criticism than private individuals. However, the right to criticize public figures is not absolute – it must comply with the provisions of the Law on the Provision of Information to the Public.

The explanatory notes are based on Dr. Dovilė Murauskienė’s Recommendations on the application of criminal liability for hate crimes and hate inciting speech and Lithuanian laws.