The United Nations’ comments on a controversial Singaporean blogger “effectively narrows the definition of 'hate speech' under international law," a U.S. human rights advocacy group says.

Seventeen-year-old Amos Yee (余澎杉) faces potential jail time after posting controversial material related to the beliefs of Christians and Muslims in videos, blogs and Facebook posts. The trial, which started on Aug. 17, is still on-going, but Yee has pleaded guilty to three of six charges of intending to wound religious feelings and two counts of not reporting to a police station.

Before the hearing started, David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, commented, “International human rights law allows only serious and extreme instances of incitement to hatred to be prohibited as criminal offences, not other forms of expression, even if they are offensive, disturbing or shocking.”

Human Rights Foundation (HRF) president Thor Halvorssen says while Yee’s videos may offend any religious person watching them, the international legal prohibition on "hate speech" should never extend to comments that fall short of inciting imminent violence.

“With this latest opinion, the Special Rapporteur is removing satirical videos and language of the type used by Mr. Yee from the vague and widely-abused concept of ‘hate speech,’” Halvorssen says.

Singapore Teen's Video

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

Singapore teen blogger Amos Yee, center, speaks to reporters while leaving the Subordinate Courts after being released on bail, Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Singapore. Yee was found guilty of insulting Christians in a video monologue, and of distributing an obscene image of the country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew with former British leader Margaret Thatcher. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Far-reaching implications

HRF notes that in 2012, the then Special Rapporteur said in order to prevent the enactment of abusive hate speech laws, only serious and extreme instances of incitement to hatred should be prohibited as criminal offences. However, this view was not applied to a specific case.

According to HRF chief legal officer Javier El-Hage, Kaye’s opinion on Yee’s prosecution is the first application of the standard since its inception four years ago.

“Under the Special Rapporteur’s new reading of the hate speech prohibition, the criminal investigations of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo and stand-up comedian Dieudonné in France would have been a violation of international law,” El-Hague says. “Both the offensive cartooning of Mohammad and Jesus by the magazine and the Muslim comedian’s insensitive comments after the attack on Charlie Hebdo would have been protected under international law, and the French government would have been admonished and called to allow both instances of attempted humor.”

El-Hague says the international prohibition of “hate speech” has increasingly seen the criminalization of opinions with ethnic, national, racial, or religious overtones.

This is “because any critical discussion of these topics in the public arena is always controversial and has the potential to offend,” he says.

APTOPIX Germany France Attacks Rallies

Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

A woman has taped her mouth displaying the word Freedom on the tape, as she gathers with several thousand people in solidarity with victims of two terrorist attacks in Paris, one at the office of weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo and another at a kosher market, front of the Brandenburg Gate near the French embassy in Berlin, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. in Berlin, Sunday, Jan. 11, 2015. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

Yee’s charges for intending to wound religious feelings could see him jailed for up to three years. The lighter charges carry a maximum penalty of one month's jail and a fine of S$1,500 (US$1,100). Yee spent about 50 days in jail last year having been found guilty of wounding religious feelings and posting a video and an obscene image online.

First Editor: Olivia Yang
Second Editor: J. Michael Cole