When Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, passed away in 2015, 16-year-old Amos Yee made an obscenity-filled YouTube video denouncing the late leader as a “tyrant.” That and other postings earned him a four-week jail sentence for “wounding religious feelings and obscenity.” Not long after, he earned another six-week sentence for derogatory comments on Islam and Christianity.
On Friday, US Immigration Judge Samuel B. Cole granted asylum to Mr. Yee, now 18, who flew to Chicago in December. “His prosecution, detention, and general maltreatment at the hands of the Singapore authorities constitute persecution,” Judge Cole ruled. “Yee is a young political dissident, and his request for asylum is granted.”
Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs was none too pleased, saying, “Many more such people around the world, who deliberately engage in hate speech, ... will no doubt take note of the US approach and consider applying for asylum in the US.”
With “hate speech” and “hate crimes” becoming a major US concern, the decision to admit an atheist blogger who spoke crudely of Muslims is sure to draw criticism. But it may also confirm that an important escape route for political dissidents is still open.
Cases like Amos’s are “actually quite common,” explains attorney Sandra Grossman, who represented Yee. “Different countries ... prosecute speech that is considered critical of the government, and that's exactly what happened in Amos's case.”
While the letter of the law may deal with offensiveness, “the intent is to silence the person that's making the speech,” she said.
“Amos's speech was offensive, and actually extremely vulgar,” Ms. Grossman tells The Christian Science Monitor over the phone. “But in no way did he incite violence against any other group. I think if we're going to be looking at speech ... that's where we can begin to draw limits.”
It’s not surprising that Singapore disagrees with the US over the acceptable bounds of speech. In the 1960s, severe rioting broke out between the island’s Chinese and Malay populations. Deliberate racial provocateurs were later blamed for weeks of violence that resulted in 36 deaths and hundreds of injuries.
Rapid economic growth has since transformed the tiny city-state into one of the world’s wealthiest countries, but the island’s leaders remain on guard against possible unrest. “Singapore is a multicultural society,” explains Min Zhou, professor of sociology and Asian American studies at UCLA, “and the state will not tolerate any speech that would harm race relations.”
But Grossman says that all too often, laws that ostensibly target offense get re-purposed for persecution.
As the managing partner of Grossman Law, LLC – a small, Bethesda, Maryland-based firm that specializes in immigration – she has helped secure asylum for clients like Nelson Mezerhane, who once co-owned Venezuela’s only independent television network, and Ecuadorian journalist Emilio Palacio, whose criticism of the government earned him a three-year prison sentence and a multimillion-dollar fine under the country’s defamation laws.
Mr. Palacio, she remembers, “was accused in Ecuador of hate speech, where really what he was doing was criticizing his government.”
Singapore, too, has faced charges that its laws go well beyond protecting civility. Freedom House classifies the country as “partly free” and its press as “not free.”
It’s not just slurs that can incur a tough penalty: In 2014, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, sued blogger Roy Ngerng Yi Ling for defamation, winning S$150,000 – currently about US$107,000 – in damages. His offense? Writing a blog post that accused Mr. Lee of misappropriating state funds.
At the same time, those who use more heated language can get away with it, if they have the right connections. Grossman pointed to the case of Jason Neo, a former youth leader in the country’s ruling party who likened Muslim Malays to terrorists. “He was kind of warned, but he was never prosecuted.,” she said.
In his ruling on Yee’s asylum case, Judge Cole cited Mr. Neo’s treatment as evidence that “people who made disparaging remarks about religions but who were not similarly critical of the Singapore regime avoided prosecution.”
As long as foreign governments use the law to silence their critics, Grossman says, America needs to remain a place of refuge. “You have people who are persecuted in their own country, under these laws of general applicability, and then they're able to find protection in the United States.”
When the New York-based Human Rights Foundation asked her to take up Amos’s case, she saw it as a means to point out the importance of this process.
“We try to handpick the cases that we think will make an impact and that are relevant, considering some of the larger immigration issues and policy issues that are going on,” she said. She considers Yee's case “emblematic” of the larger debates over immigration and free speech taking place today.
It may also reveal how the playing field has tilted against asylum seekers. At the time of her interview on Saturday afternoon, Grossman was still waiting to receive word that Yee had been released from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, where he has been held since arriving in the US in December.
But Grossman says this case has been handled differently than her previous ones. “I've never heard of another case where someone has been granted asylum and has not been released, even if the government appeals" the court’s ruling – a right that ICE had not yet exercised or waived, she says.
Yee's situation presents “a test case for the new Trump executive orders,” she says.
If and when Yee is released, he says that he plans to continue speaking out and even write a book about his experiences. In doing so, he could also test American society’s patience for off-color commentators.
Grossman made clear that she hopes we pass. “I think that we are a country that is known around the world for our First Amendment protections. And if we start to draw lines and limit what people can say based on what's offensive to some, there's not going to be any way to control that.”
UCLA's Professor Zhou, whose research focuses on Asian immigration, suggests that accepting him won't just be a win for free speech. "Yee is still very young," she points out. "With proper education and mentorship, he may be able to turn his talent and energy toward a more productive career and make [a] positive contribution, like other immigrants, to enrich the US society."