The Pioneering Year Ahead for Professor Richard Wilson
Written by Tatyana Marugg, UConn Law student
It’s an exciting year for UConn Professor Richard Wilson. For those who do not know him, Professor Wilson is the Gladstein Distinguished Chair of Human Rights, founding director of the Human Rights Institute, and a Professor of Law and Anthropology. This year, in addition to the publication of his new book titled “Incitement on Trial, Prosecuting International Speech Crimes,” Professor Wilson will be working on an innovative speech and incitement project as a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City. This work builds on his longstanding interest in the intersection of international human rights issues and accountability for inciting speech, which dates back to his PhD work on transitional justice in Guatemala and the organization Centro Para la Accion Legal en Derechos Humanos (CALDH)- a group that works to bring justice and give a voice to those harmed in the Guatemalan civil war. As in many post-conflict nations, in Guatemala it is rare for those who publicly encouraged the violent atrocities of the war to be held legally responsible for their role. Recognizing this as a widespread human rights issue, Professor Wilson expanded his research to a larger international scale and began looking at the inability of courts to effectively evaluate and prosecute propaganda and incitement trials. This is a problem not just in Guatemala and post-conflict nations, but in the United States as well.
Controversy over incitement in the U.S. was widely publicized this summer after the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, and even more famously on the 2016 election campaign trail. On March 1, 2016, Donald Trump responded to protestors at a rally by shouting “Get ‘em out of here” to a frenzied crowd. The crowd proceeded to physically push the protestors out of the stadium while shouting racial slurs, and a 17-year-old was punched in the stomach. Is this incitement? Did Donald Trump’s words cause those actions? A district judge is allowing the case to go to trial, but without clear proof of legal cause and continuing ambiguity over the standard, the outcome is unclear at best. This is the problem that Professor Wilson is working to solve. His research, particularly on hate speech in the US and the Balkans, has led him to believe that an analysis of factors such as the authority of the speaker and the intensity of the language (among many others) can generate a prediction about whether or not speech will result in violence. It’s an ambitious proposal to say the least, but he has committed to spending the next year developing a framework for lawyers, judges, and policymakers that will remove some of the ambiguity from incitement cases. In doing so, he hopes that judges can also use this risk assessment framework to make better and more informed rulings. Such a framework would also be highly valuable to judges in international courts, where cultural biases between countries can lead to vastly differing opinions about the parameters of free speech and incitement. For example, countries such as the United States and Norway are considered to be free speech absolutists, with a high degree of tolerance for offensive and even violent rhetoric, whereas Germany’s strict enforcement of its broad prohibition of hate speech has been argued to constitute censorship. Professor Wilson’s evaluation framework could help judges from these countries evaluate incitement and propaganda cases independently of their cultural biases.
It’s a bold proposition, and one with the potential to fundamentally change how these cases are evaluated, but it’s not without obstacles. Professor Wilson knows that it’s no small task to turn years of both qualitative social science research and quantitative trial statistics into a comprehensive matrix for evaluating inciting speech. Moreover, even once the project is completed, he still faces the task of disseminating his work in the legal and political communities here and abroad. Despite these challenges, Professor Wilson is looking forward to his year with the Russell Sage Foundation and the UConn community is eager to see his new work.
Interested in incitement and the media? Professor Wilson’s latest book “Incitement on Trial, Prosecuting International Speech Crimes” is available on Amazon. For more information about the Russell Sage Foundation, check out their website here: https://www.russellsage.org/