Two professors at the University of Sheffield have published a piece in the Oxford Journal of Legal Studies to extend hate speech protections to animals to deal with hateful “speciesist” remarks. Drs. Josh Milburn and Alasdair Cochrane insist that such protections will help achieve a “more benign human–animal relations within society.” The need for speech criminalization is based on the view that “some animals do seem to have their social confidence eroded because of their awareness of the risk of violence.”
We previously discussed the campaign by PETA to end the use of animal references in pejorative comments. It called for the end of the use of pig, chicken, pig, rat, snake and other references to “stand up for justice by rejecting supremacist language.”
These two academics go further to demand actual speech crimes and controls to protect animals:
“Laws against hate speech protect members of certain human groups. However, they do not offer protection to nonhuman animals. Using racist hate speech as our primary example, we explore the discrepancy between the legal response to hate speech targeting human groups and what might be called anti-animal or speciesist hate speech….We thus conclude that, absent a compelling alternative argument, there is no in-principle reason to support the censure of racist hate speech but not the censure of speciesist hate speech.”
What was striking to me in the work is the reliance on the writings of NYU Professor Jeremy Waldron who I debated a couple years ago at Rice University over his work in establishing speech codes and crimes. Despite my respect for him as an academic, I have long objected to Waldron’s work as inimical to free speech and creating a slippery slope of ever-expanding censorship. That danger is evident in this latest work. The professors embrace Waldron’s concept of “group defamation” and the harm it causes to individuals in society. They then extend that concept to animals:
“the best reading of Waldron’s theory must include certain animals within its protective remit…some states have enacted constitutional provisions for the sake of animals, some of which explicitly recognise the ‘dignity’ of animals.But, again, none of these provisions acknowledges that animals possess the Waldronian sense of civic dignity: none views animals as possessing equal social standing, membership, status, and rights. No community truly regards its animal residents as members of society, and none recognises them as equals.”
The argument illustrates how speech controls and crimes develop into an insatiable appetite for more and more regulation in maintaining what Waldron calls a better society. More and more speech is pulled into this vortex of criminalization and regulation.
As many know on this blog, I have long called for greater protections for animals and the recognition broader of animal rights. This includes greater standing to argue for relief in court on behalf of such animal interests. However, I am also a free speech advocate. Indeed, academics like Waldron probably view me as something of an extremist in my own right. I admit that I oppose most regulation and criminalization of speech. I may be a free speech dinosaur in that sense. Traditional free speech values are certainly out of vogue among academics. I believe in largely unfettered free speech, particularly for statements made off campus or outside of a classroom. I seriously do not believe that these animals are harmed by such comments but I know that free speech will be further harmed by their criminalization.
The danger is really not a line of woke Weimaraners because this really protects the sensibilities of humans. Indeed, it may be an odd form of anthropomorphism in assuming hurt feelings that humans would have. Animals can clearly sense anger and disapproval. However, few leave the room when you complain of living a “dog’s life” or “eating like a pig.”
There is a point about such phraseology but I prefer Dr. Doolittle’s version:
You can read the study here.
* * *
Update: Soon after this column was posted, I received a thoughtful and clarifying response from Professor Milburn. With his approval, I can including that response to this posting so that readers understand the position of the authors. I appreciate his reaching out and I encourage readers to consider the more nuanced view that he is suggesting:
Thank you for blogging about the article I wrote with Alasdair Cochrane on animals and hate speech. We, of course, welcome engagement and analysis from legal scholars.
I am emailing to clarify that, in the article, we do not say that animals should be protected from hate speech. We argue for a conditional: given that we have found — in existing scholarly discourse about the foundations of hate speech law — no compelling reason to draw a line, we conclude that if humans should be protected by hate-speech laws, then (in principle) animals should be protected by hate-speech laws.
I believe that this is a conclusion that could be endorsed by people who support the existence of hate-speech laws and those who do not. Indeed, I have previously spoken with a colleague who is, like you, very sceptical of hate-speech laws, and he suggested that Alasdair and I frame the paper explicitly as a reductio-style argument against hate-speech laws. We do not do this in the paper — indeed, we do not take a side in the question of whether hate-speech laws are justified at all. But we welcome engagement with our arguments from people who are generally supportive of hate-speech laws and those who are generally opposed.
Anyways; thank you, again, for taking the time to write about our paper.