A New International Law "Value" -- Freedom from "Defamation of Religions"?

Washburn University law professor Liaquat Ali Khan has an interesting article in The American Muslim called Combating Defamation of Religions:

A new value is emerging in the realm of the peoples' rights. Now two years in a row, the United Nations General Assembly has passed a resolution called, Combating Defamation of Religions. Although the Defamation Resolution applies to all religions, it highlights "the negative projection of Islam in the media and the introduction and enforcement of laws that specifically discriminate against and target Muslims." ...

The General Assembly resolutions may contain soft international law. With the passage of time and compliant state behavior, some resolutions pave the way for the formation of a multilateral treaty or customary international law. In almost all cases, these resolutions reflect the international community’s views, which cannot be dismissed as mere opinions. These views, even when they fall short of opinio juris, influence multilateral relations and compose the sociology of international law....

[T]he Defamation Resolution urges states to prevent political institutions and organizations from fomenting discrimination, hostility, and violence against religious groups....

The idea of combating the defamation of religions, though morally sound, is difficult from a legislative viewpoint and will pose serious drafting challenges. The idea, however, poses no greater problems than prohibiting hate speech against racial, ethnic, or religious groups — a law adopted in almost all countries of the world except the United States. One key function of law is to make distinctions and draw balance between competing rights. In the complex realm of human affairs, no right is absolute, not even free speech or the dignity of religion. Accordingly, the law against defamation of religions may be constructed in a way that does not abridge legitimate speech including artistic freedom and yet protects the dignity of religion....

I appreciate the article's acknowledgment that many criticize the resolution on free speech grounds — yet it seems to me hard to read the article as anything but an endorsement of the resolution, and an endorsement of some restrictions on "[il]legitimate speech" that undermines "the dignity of religion." Unfortunately, the article doesn't explain just how the "serious drafting challenges" are to be resolved; and though I e-mailed Prof. Ali Khan on Monday to ask him for his thoughts on the subject, I haven't yet heard back from him. It's therefore hard to figure out precisely what kind of speech Prof. Ali Khan and other backers of the Resolution would like to restrict. A good place to start, though, is one of the provisions of the resolution:

The Commission on Human Rights ... Urges States to take resolute action to prohibit the dissemination through political institutions and organizations of racist and xenophobic ideas and material aimed at any religion or its followers that constitute incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.

Prohibiting the dissemination of xenophobic ideas aimed at any religion that constitute incitement to hostility — sounds like a pretty broad proposition. It would cover many atheist criticisms of religion generally; many secularist criticisms of fundamentalist Christianity (or Islam or Judaism); condemnation of religious groups that are alleged to be cults or scams; many theological criticisms of a wide range of religions; many pro-gay-rights or pro-women's-rights condemnations of religions that are seen as hostile to gays or women; and much more.

I think American law is correct in protecting even racist speech, or speech that advocates discrimination (even when limited to illegal discrimination) or violence. But the Resolution, and the very concept of "defamation of religions," suggests the suppression of much more speech than even that.

Two more thoughts:

1. Slippery Slopes: Note how Prof. Ali Khan relies on "The idea, however, poses no greater problems than prohibiting hate speech against racial, ethnic, or religious groups — a law adopted in almost all countries of the world except the United States." This is precisely what those who fear slippery slopes worry about.

A narrow exception for so-called racial or ethnic "hate speech" is adopted (often partly based on grounds that racial or ethnic hostility is illogical because it turns on irrelevant traits such as people's skin color). Then it's broadened to cover religious "hate speech," though religion is ideology and hostility to people based on their ideology is at least more sensible than hostility based on race. (Though I think that religious hostility is generally unjustified despite this, there is an important distinction between racial and religious hostility — but a distinction that many foreign hate speech laws disregard.)

Then this is used as an analogy to support proposed bans on "defamation of religion" generally, a category that's considerably broader than calls for discrimination or violence against the people who adhere to the religion. After all, almost all countries restrict "hate speech"; that broad acceptance suggests (the argument goes) that the restrictions are indeed sound; why not extend them a little further? And of course once we slip down to restrictions on defamation of religion, those restrictions in turn can be used as analogies to support further restrictions.

2. The Subtle Insinuation of International Law into Our Constitutional Law: Finally, this returns me to a Stanford Law Review article I read a few years ago. Signing treaties, the article said, may erode the Bill of Rights: American decisions to sign on to international treaties may erode the protections of the Bill of Rights, for instance the First Amendment.

Yes, the Supreme Court has supposedly said otherwise, in Reid v. Covert (1957): "[N]o agreement with a foreign nation can confer power on the [federal government] which is free from the restraints of the Constitution" (speaking of the Bill of Rights). But it turns out that this supremacy of the Bill of Rights really isn't that strong: The President and the Senate can, in the long run, "insinuat[e] international law" that would create "a partial displacement of constitutional hegemony" (for instance, with "an international norm against hate speech ... supply[ing] a basis for prohibiting it, the First Amendment notwithstanding"). "In the short term," international norms would and should be "relevan[t] ... in domestic constitutional interpretation." But "In the long run, it may point to the Constitution's more complete subordination."

These quotes are not from some anti-internationalist "The U.N. is coming to take away our liberties" conservatives. They are from Treaties, International Law, and Constitutional Rights, by Prof. Peter Spiro, one of the leading American international law scholars. Prof. Spiro is both defending the notion that treaties should be able to trump constitutional rights — "If some constitutional norms are more appropriately set at the international level" (and he believes they are), "that should justify a treaty power that, in some cases, overcomes even the Bill of Rights" — and predicting that treaties will over time do so. Courts, he acknowledges, would try to "maintain[] the formal hegemony of the domestic constitution," but "this formal hegemony may disguise a loss of domestic constitutional autonomy over the long run":

Constitutional rights "adjusted" by treaty norms are changed by them. The Constitution is read to conform with the treaty.

Of course, some people may be quite happy about this: They might well conclude that parts of the Bill of Rights should be superseded by "international" norms, both those explicitly mentioned in treaties and those created by authoritative organs such as the U.N. General Assembly (which themselves derive their legitimacy from treaties that crated them). They may think the international lawmaking community — mostly, I suspect, composed of European legal and political elites, plus of course those segments of American legal and political elites that are involved in this field — will indeed reach better results than those provided for by the current understanding of the U.S. Constitution.

But those of us who disagree should vigilantly watch for, and resist, the "displacement of constitutional hegemony" that the article welcomes. We should insist that the President and the Senate consistently stress in all the treaties they sign and ratify that our agreement to the treaty is constrained by our Constitution, and that the treaty should be read to conform to the Constitution, and not the other way around. We should be careful that none of the treaties that our elected representatives sign include language that broadly approves of "new value[s]" "in the realm of peoples' rights" such as freedom from "defamation of religions," or that authorizes international institutions to create such "new value[s]."

We should criticize judges who rely on international norms in interpreting American constitutional provisions (in this respect, reading Prof. Spiro's article has led me to reconsider some of my views in this post, and to view with much more alarm reliance on international law in American constitutional interpretation). And we should assiduously publicize the ways in which international rules are, in our view, worse than ours, for instance to show that foreign bans on "hate speech" actually end up banning (as American First Amendment thinking would have suggested) a good deal of speech that deserves to be protected (see, for instance, this post by David Bernstein).

Today, as Prof. Ali Khan points out, many foreign countries do not endorse the "emerging" "peoples' rights" "value" of freedom from "defamation of religion" (though enough endorse it to get General Assembly approval). But most foreign countries have endorsed values that aren't that far off, such as freedom from racial and religious "hate speech." It's quite plausible that in a few decades, Prof. Ali Khan's perspective will indeed be adopted by the great majority of foreign countries. I'd hate to see that undermining free speech in America — yet Prof. Spiro's arguments suggest that it might, especially (but not necessarily only) if the General Assembly Resolutions are embodied in future treaties.

Our Constitution is far from perfect, both as written and as interpreted. I think courts should indeed change their views on many issues, and people should try to press courts to do so. But this should be our decision as Americans. We should not cede our control over our constitutional rights to international bodies, international professional elites, or even to our own President and Senate.