UConn Law Students Stand Up to Hate Speech

Third Year Law student, Tatyanna Marugg, tells us about her experience working with the Human Rights International Law Clinic to address the issue of incitement on social media platforms

Human Rights Clinic Students Group PhotoIn the fall of 2018, the Human Rights International Law Clinic took on a new and exciting project from the American Bar Association’s Human Rights Center addressing the timely topic of incitement on social media platforms.  The struggle of social media giants like Facebook and Twitter to effectively moderate content on their platforms has made headlines worldwide, but the consequences of online hate speech have been particularly deadly in countries like Guatemala, where a longstanding culture of impunity has adapted quickly to social media platforms.  The ABA asked the clinic to study this problem in Guatemala and the effect that it has on human rights defenders in the country, who are frequent victims of both online hate speech and physical attacks.

Seven UConn Law students undertook this ambitious project under the guidance of Professor Richard Wilson and Professor Molly Land.  Professor Wilson, who recently published the highly relevant book Incitement on Trial: Prosecuting International Speech Crimes, brought to the team a rich understanding of Guatemalan history and culture gained from long-term research in the country’s Alta Verapaz province.  To apply this understanding of Guatemala and incitement in the digital world, Professor Land contributed to the team her expertise studying, publishing, and speaking on the intersection of human rights and new technology.  Her current research, which aims to establish an interdisciplinary framework based on human rights law for responding to harmful speech online, addresses a key goal of the clinic’s work.

The clinic, which has been extended into the spring semester with the same team of dedicated J.D. and LL.M. students, is using Guatemala as a case study to develop a series of policy recommendations on how social media companies might identify and respond to online speech attacks against human rights defenders.  In the process of doing so, students are examining the social science of inciting speech, along with specific criminal prosecutions for hate speech, and conducting research in public international law, international criminal law, and domestic First Amendment law.  In addition, students are conducting interviews with experts, including several on the ground in Guatemala.  The team is also working with a data analyst to track trends in hate speech on social media and to better understand the relationship between online and real world violence.

When the clinic’s report is submitted to the ABA this spring, students will not only have gained valuable real-world legal skills, but will also have pursued a shared passion for using their education to promote justice—bringing the power of the UConn Law and human rights communities to Guatemala and beyond.