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Speech Duties

  • Molly K. Land (a1)

Using the example of harmful speech online, this essay argues that duties to others—a core component of our humanness—require us to consider the impact our speech has on those who hear it. The widening availability of tools for sharing information and the rise of social media have opened up new avenues for individuals to communicate without the need for journalistic intermediaries. While this presents considerable opportunities for expression, it also means that there are fewer filters in place to manage the harmful effects of speech. Moreover, the structure of online spaces and the uneven legal frameworks that regulate them have exacerbated the effects of harmful speech, allowing mob behavior, harassment, and virtual violence, particularly against minority populations and other vulnerable groups.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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I am grateful to Jessica Blasnik for excellent research assistance.

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1 Danielle Keats Citron, Hate Crimes in Cyberspace 56–72 (2014).

2 John Ruggie (Special Representative of the Secretary-General on the Issue of Human Rights and Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises), Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights: Implementing the United Nations “Protect, Respect and Remedy” Framework, UN Doc. A/HRC/17/31, Principle 13 (Mar. 21, 2011) [hereinafter Guiding Principles].

3 John H. Knox, Horizontal Human Rights Law, 102 AJIL 1, 1 (2008).

4 See generally Douglas Hodgson, Individual Duty Within a Human Rights Discourse (2003).

5 Knox, supra note 3, at 9–10. See generally Erica-Irene A. Daes, Freedom of the Individual under Law: A Study on the Individual's Duties to the Community and the Limitations on Human Rights and Freedoms under Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1990).

6 See, e.g., Makau Wa Mutua, The Banjul Charter and the African Cultural Fingerprint: An Evaluation of the Language of Duties, 35 Va. J. Int'l L. 339, 359–64 (1995).

7 Jordan J. Paust, The Other Side of Right: Private Duties Under Human Rights Law, 5 Harv. Hum. Rts. J. 51, 53 (1992).

8 See, e.g., Eric R. Boot, Human Duties and the Limits of Human Rights Discourse 4–5, 69 (2017); Hodgson, supra note 4, at 211–18.

9 Fernando Berdion Del Valle & Kathryn Sikkink, (Re)discovering Duties: Individual Responsibilities in the Age of Rights, 26 Minn. J. Int'l L. 189, 244 (2017).

10 See, e.g., Aaron Xavier Fellmeth, Paradigms of International Human Rights Law 29, 40–41 (2016); Daes, supra note 5, at 52, para. 221; Boot, supra note 8, at 95; Hodgson, supra note 4, at 98; Del Valle & Sikkink, supra note 9, at 197; Ben Saul, In the Shadow of Human Rights: Human Duties, Obligations, and Responsibilities, 32 Colum. Hum. Rts. L. Rev. 565 (2001).

11 Fellmeth, supra note 10, at 29.

12 Knox, supra note 3, at 10. An emphasis on duties might also be seen as a methodological approach that allows us to clarify the nature of rights. Boot, supra note 8, at 67.

14 Manfred Nowak, U.N. Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: CCPR Commentary 350 (1993); see generally Molly K. Land, Toward an International Law of the Internet, 54 Harv. Int'l L.J. 393, 448–49 (2013).

15 Nowak, supra note 14, at 349.

17 Adam Liptak, How Conservatives Weaponized the First Amendment, N.Y. Times (June 30, 2018).

18 See generally Citron, supra note 1.

20 U.N. Human Rights Committee, Hertzberg and Others v. Fin., Comm. No. 61/1979, at 124, U.N. Doc. CCPR/C/15/D/61/1979 (1982).

21 Cf. Boot, supra note 8, at 162–67 (arguing that states should take steps to cultivate civic virtue, including through education).

22 Guiding Principles, supra note 2, Principles 11, 13(b).

24 Amanda Taub & Max Fisher, Facebook Fueled Anti-Refugee Attacks in Germany, New Research Suggests, N.Y. Times (Aug. 21, 2018).

25 Noam Lapidot-Lefler & Azy Barak, Effects of Anonymity, Invisibility, and Lack of Eye-Contact on Toxic Online Disinhibition, 28 Computers Hum. Behav. 434, 434–36 (2012); see also Arthur D. Santana, Virtuous or Vitriolic, 8 Journalism Prac. 18 (2014); John Suler, The Online Disinhibition Effect, 2 Int'l J. Applied Psychoanalytical Stud. 184 (2005).

26 Citron, supra note 1, at 59.

27 Id.

29 Katrin Wodzicki et al., Does the Type of Anonymity Matter? The Impact of Visualization on Information Sharing in Online Groups, 14 Cyberpsychology, Behav., & Soc. Networking 157, 157–58 (2011).

30 Patricia K. Gilbert & Nada Dabbagh, How to Structure Online Discussions for Meaningful Discourse: A Case Study, 36 Brit. J. Ed. Tech. 5, 16 (2005).

31 Alexander Brown, What Is So Special About Online (As Compared to Offline) Hate Speech?, 18(3) Ethnicities 297, 305 (2017).

* I am grateful to Jessica Blasnik for excellent research assistance.

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