At one point in his August 26 lecture at Cornell Law School, Dr. Wolfgang Brandstetter displayed an image of Ernst Kirchweger, a concentration camp survivor who, in 1965, was fatally injured during a clash between opposing groups of demonstrators at a Vienna college. At the center of the demonstrations was the continued employment of a professor named Taras Borodajkewycz, who had incensed some students and inspired others with his continued vocal support of the Nazi party. For Brandstetter the infamous incident is an illustration of the tenacity of Nazism is post-war Austria, as well as the tragic escalation of hate speech into violence.
Brandstetter is the Minister of Justice of the Republic of Austria, a position he has held since 2013. He visited Cornell to deliver a presentation titled “Legal Challenges of Hate Speech and Hate Crime in Europe,” presented by the Berger International Legal Studies Program.
Brandstetter asserted that “the prosecution of hate speech aims to secure the possibility of equal participation of all people in public life,” while also acknowledging the tension between this mandate and the fundamental right to freedom of expression. He noted that some of Austria’s strict prohibitions on hate speech would not meet the standards of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
He also addressed the challenges of Internet hate speech, sharing a string of recent cases in which defendants had received jail time for inflammatory comments on Facebook—for instance, an exhortation to “STAB ALL ASYLUM SEEKERS.” These recent convictions, Brandstetter remarked, demonstrated that a newly “sharpened” law against hate speech “really worked.”
He noted that Austria had also recently enacted a law that provides for criminal sanctions against “cyber-mobbing,” a development motivated by the suicide of a bullied student. Additionally, this spring the European Commission joined with a number of IT companies, including Facebook and Twitter, to issue a code of conduct aimed at countering illegal hate speech online.
For his part, Brandstetter was impatient with the Commission’s timeline and met with Facebook leadership directly. He has assigned special prosecutors to monitor hate speech on the platform, and the company will face criminal charges if it fails to respond promptly when ordered to remove harmful content. So far, Brandstetter says, his relationship with the social media giant has been friendly.
“We will continue to impose legal restrictions on hate crime and hate speech and the misuse of freedom of speech that hurts people, violates the public interest, and too often leads to physical violence,” said Brandstetter. “That’s what we in Austria learned from history, and this lesson, which has been painful at times, will be our guideline for times to come.”
He concluded by advising his listeners, “If you did not like my lecture, you should know that I am not on Facebook or Twitter, so please don’t even try to be my troll,” adding, “Let’s all be troll-busters instead and fight against the tyranny of the mob together.”