Incitement on Trial book cover. Book by Richard Ashby Wilson
Incitement on Trial book cover. Book by Richard Ashby Wilson ()

A new book by a University of Connecticut School of Law professor explores the links between hate speech and violence, with reference to 20th and 21st century conflicts.

Richard Ashby Wilson explores the legal questions that arise in prosecuting incitement, and he proposes new ways of regulating the risks of political speech, in “Incitement on Trial: Prosecuting International Speech Crimes.”

Officially released Aug. 31 by Cambridge University Press, the book describes how media campaigns that demonize segments of populations often precede armed conflicts. Still, international criminal tribunals often have trouble showing that the words directly caused the violent acts, Wilson notes.

“At the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg in 1945-6, one Nazi propagandist [Julius Streicher] was found guilty of crimes against humanity and hanged, but another [Hans Fritzsche] was acquitted,” Wilson writes. Several more recent prosecutions for speech crimes have failed, including the cases against Serb nationalist Vojislav Šešelj and the sitting vice president of Kenya, William Ruto.

From Nazi Germany to Rwanda and Bosnia, courts have struggled to hold the public figures who foment hatred accountable for the ensuing violence. One of the key problems they encounter is determining what types of speech are most likely to elevate the risk of violence.

Wilson’s original research included a survey that exposed American participants to the hate speech of Šešelj and evaluated their responses. His team of researchers found that calls for revenge and references to past atrocities are most likely to lead participants to justify violence. An understanding of the social science of persuasion and violence would not only help prosecute crimes against humanity, Wilson concludes, it could help prevent them.

Knowing which messages are most likely to promote violence, institutions such as the International Criminal Court could monitor volatile situations and take action before armed conflict erupts, Wilson writes. He notes that the act of inciting genocide is a crime in itself and could be prosecuted before there is a chance for armed conflict to occur. If violence does happen, prosecutors should not focus on proving causation but instead on who gave specific orders to commit violent acts and who aided and abetted those acts, he argues.

The book, Wilson said, “is intended to help prosecutors identify the most dangerous forms of speech and to use the law in a preventative manner to forestall violence before it occurs. If it does occur, then inciters may be charged as complicit with the perpetrators, rather than a direct instigators of the violence itself.”

Wilson is a professor of both law and anthropology at the University of Connecticut, the Gladstein Distinguished Chair in Human Rights at the UConn School of Law and founding director of the university’s Human Rights Institute. He will next turn his attention, as a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation, to a research project on incitement and hate speech in the United States since 2016.