July 20th, 2015

AWARE statement on the prosecution of Amos Yee

gavelAWARE has grave concerns about the negative implications of the recent prosecution of Amos Yee. This statement focuses on harassment and hate speech as these areas are closest to our work, although we also share concerns that others have raised about the importance of upholding freedom of expression, children’s rights, and the integrity of people with autism and mental health issues.

  1. Protection from Harassment Act (POHA)

It is well-known that we support POHA. Harassment can make victims’ ordinary activities and daily lives – at school, at work, around home, online and in other social spaces – a source of torment. POHA is aimed at addressing this harm.

As such, we were troubled by the initial move to charge Yee under POHA. While we are relieved that the charge did not proceed, we are concerned that its invocation has sent the wrong message regarding the intent of POHA, as well as the very real threats of harassment that many individuals – and women in particular – face.

It is critical to this concept of harassment that it is directed at specific victims who could suffer the harm described above. However, an examination of Yee’s posts does not disclose any possible victims of harassment.

  • Broad classes: Yee speaks about “parents” and discusses Christianity. This cannot be said to be harassment of parents or Christians in general as harassment must be directed at identifiable individuals, not broadly defined groups. An abusive statement about “AWARE members” or “AWARE”, for example, cannot reasonably be said to harass any specific AWARE member. A statement about a religion likewise should not be treated as harassment of all its adherents, as it is not possible to identify the individuals harassed.
  • Politicians: Yee refers to current Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher, and expresses disagreement with their conduct. In our view, POHA should never be used against individuals discussing the conduct of public officials in positions of power, even if such discussions are heated or strongly-worded.
  • Deceased people / religious figures: As well as Lee Kuan Yew and Margaret Thatcher, Yee discusses Jesus Christ. Neither deceased individuals nor religious figures can experience harassment.

There were no other people referred to by Yee who might be said to be victims of harassment. We urge the Attorney-General’s Chambers to ensure that POHA is not extended beyond its intended remit – the protection of individuals who would otherwise be vulnerable to harm.

  1. Criticism of religion

The state is right to promote respect for diverse religious beliefs. However, in a multi-faith society, all of us encounter views on religion that conflict with our own. We should not be quick to apply the criminal law in response to our own discomfort. A plural society must allow conflicting views to co-exist. Only dialogue can create deeper mutual understanding and genuine harmony.

Amos Yee’s case sets a very low threshold for involving the criminal justice process and could open the floodgates to charges criminalising numerous harmless casual or everyday discussions of religion. As has been often noted, many Christians had spoken up publicly against the charges, demonstrating how people of faith do not necessarily perceive conflicting views and attitudes as threats requiring suppression by the law. On whose behalf, then, did the state bring the charges regarding religious feeling?

Moreover, Yee was formerly in the Catholic Church. Our relationships to our own faith traditions can be complex. Many people need space to grapple – even in strong terms – with their own religious feelings. This is a key part of religious freedom and should not be mistaken for fomenting hatred between groups.

We urge the Attorney-General’s Chambers to prosecute only in extreme cases, such as those involving clear threat of violence or harm to personal safety.

  1. Hate speech

Singapore’s High Commissioner to the UK defended the state’s actions against Yee by saying that “Protection from hate speech is also a basic human right.”

Protection from hate speech is indeed important. However, hate speech cannot be detached from specific contexts of power and inequality. As sexual violence disproportionately affects women and girls, rape threats create a gendered hostile environment. Homophobic slurs gain force from the threats to safety and well-being that queer people often face. Other marginalised groups such as racial minorities and disabled people may also be excluded from social participation by hate speech.

A society that aspires toward inclusiveness must act against hate speech, as hate speech exacerbates existing forms of exclusion and inequality. But there is no evidence that Yee’s speech was indeed hate speech of this kind.

Even in cases of obvious hate speech, prosecution is an extreme measure. It may be satisfyingly punitive, but it does not promote a better understanding of the relevant issues. Much can be done without using the criminal law, such as applying more conscious editorial standards on public platforms, or public officials speaking out against inequality and discrimination in explicit terms.

The clearest hate speech in the case was against young people, a disempowered group given little autonomy or respect. Many people called for violence against Yee, and one man made his way to the courts to oblige them. Far from stamping out hate speech, the prosecution seems to have stirred a public frenzy, including the use of violence, against an outspoken young person. We urge the state to be mindful of the stigmatising effect of such prosecutions in the future.

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