The Danger of Vagueness
Module 6: Hate Speech
The obvious danger in regulating hate speech is that vagueness in the definition of what constitutes a criminal act will be used to penalise expression that has neither the intent nor the realistic possibility of inciting hatred.
The proposed Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill in Nigeria is an example. It proposes that:
“Any person who uses, publishes, presents, produces, plays, provides, distributes and/or directs the performance of any material, written and or visual which is threatening, abusive or insulting or involves the use of threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour commits an offence if such person intends thereby to stir up ethnic hatred, or having regard to all the circumstances, ethnic hatred is likely to be stirred up against any person or person from such an ethnic group in Nigeria.”
It further proposes punishing persons guilty of this offence with life in prison or, if the act results in the loss of life, the death sentence.
Civil society has argued that such a broad definition is open to subjective interpretation by law enforcement and would pose a threat to critical opinion, satire, public dialogue, and political commentary, and is particularly concerning in light of the exceptionally harsh penalties imposed.(1)