Controversial comments from a defunct and somewhat obscure Cabinet Office online forum have ignited a social media debate over hate speech.

Discontinued in April 2017, the online forum known as the Government Monitor System allowed citizens to contact the Cabinet Office directly to express policy-related ideas, with the comments eventually being published online. Although the government warned against the use of “slanderous” comments, many appear to encroach upon what qualifies as hate speech.

The user comments, which included calls to execute former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama and attack Korean residents in Japan, were brought to light in the past week via a blog post and a subsequent social media discussion, particularly on Twitter.

When reached for comment Wednesday, the Cabinet Office stated repeatedly that the website operated under the ideal that the government should respect the opinions of citizens rather than censor the material.

“We wanted to respect the position of our citizens,” said an official from the Cabinet Office’s public relations, who asked to remain anonymous. “And so as far as I understand, the user comments were usually simply divided up by field and published.”

Yuji Nasu, a professor of constitutional law at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka, suggested that, legally speaking, removing the controversial comments from public forums would most likely not result in violation of the Constitution or any other law. But in doing so, bureaucrats would potentially be put in the difficult position of having to decide which comments warranted being deleted.

“I think that if there are extreme comments, such as referring to certain nationalities as cockroaches, then there could be a legal case to remove them without violating the Constitution,” Nasu said.

“But on the other hand, in cases where comments don’t use extreme wording, but are simply insulting, it may be more difficult for those working at the Cabinet Office to remove the comments from the forums,” he added.

Nasu suggested the government could find middle ground by instead tagging controversial comments with disclaimers making it clear that the government does not support hate speech.

Other countries have also experienced controversy when publishing official policy suggestions on online forums.

During the Obama administration, the U.S. government in 2011 launched a website petition service called We the People. The service allowed people to post or vote on petitions they believe the government should address.

While the U.S. petition website warns users against using obscene material, defamatory or fraudulent statements, in addition to a slew of other rules that give the curators of the website the power to remove improper content, the efforts did not completely prevented the website from hosting controversial petitions. One of the most recent petitions active on the website as of Wednesday was titled, “Declare George Soros a terrorist and seize all of his related organizations’ assets …”

The Japanese version of the Government Monitor System was originally created in 1962 and allowed citizens to send in policy ideas to the government via postal mail. It was later upgraded to include online comments in 2012.

Professor Kenta Yamada of Senshu University in Tokyo acknowledged that hate speech is hard to classify in practice, and that a reluctance to do so is somewhat based on a historical reluctance to crackdown on freedom of expression.

But Yamada, a specialist in freedom of speech laws, also added, “To maintain order in online forums, it may be necessary to create more clear rules than were used under the Cabinet Office forums.”

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