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Free Speech on the Run in the West

March 5, 2006

Law professor Eugene Volokh calls it “censorship envy.” Muslims in Europe want the same sort of censorship that many nations now offer to other aggrieved groups. By law, 11 European nations can punish anyone who publicly denies the Holocaust. That’s why the strange British historian David Irving is going to prison. Ken Livingstone, the madcap mayor of London, was suspended for four weeks for calling a Jewish reporter a Nazi. A Swedish pastor endured a long and harrowing prosecution for a sermon criticizing homosexuality, finally beating the rap in Sweden’s Supreme Court.

Much of Europe has painted itself into a corner on the censorship issue. What can Norway say to pro-censorship Muslims when it already has a hate speech law forbidding, among other things, “publicly stirring up one part of the population against another,” or any utterance that “threatens, insults or subjects to hatred, persecution or contempt any person or group of persons because of their creed, race, color or national or ethnic origin … or homosexual bent”? No insulting utterances at all? Since most strong opinions can be construed as insulting (hurting someone’s feelings), no insults means no free speech.
It’s not just Europe. In Canada, a teacher drew a suspension for a letter to a newspaper arguing that homosexuality is not a fixed orientation, but a condition that can be treated. He was not accused of discrimination, merely of expressing thoughts that the state defines as improper. Another Canadian newspaper was fined 4,500 Canadian dollars for printing an ad giving the citations — but not the text — of four biblical quotations against homosexuality. As David Bernstein writes in his book “You Can’t Say That!”: “It has apparently become illegal in Canada to advocate traditional Christian opposition to homosexual sex.”

Many nations have set themselves up for Muslim complaints by adopting the unofficial slogan of the West’s chattering classes: Multiculturalism trumps free speech. Sensitivity and equality are viewed as so important that the individual right to speak out is routinely eclipsed. Naturally enough, Muslims want to play the same victim game as other aggrieved groups. The French Council of Muslims says it is considering taking France Soir, which reprinted the Danish cartoons, to court for provocation.

In truth, Muslims have been playing the game for some time. Michel Houellebecq, a French novelist, said some derogatory things about the Quran. Muslim groups hauled him into court, but the novelist was eventually exonerated. Actress Brigitte Bardot, an animal rights activist, criticized Muslim ritual slaughter and was fined 10,000 francs for the offense. Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote an angry anti-Muslim book, meant to waken the West to the gravity of the threat posed by Islam. Muslims pressed for her prosecution in France. The case was thrown out of court on a technicality in 2002, but she is scheduled to go on trial again this coming June.

In Australia, a state tribunal found two pastors guilty of vilification of Muslims. They had argued that Islam is inherently a violent religion, and that Islam plans to take over Australia. To avoid a fine of up to 7,000 Australian dollars or three months in jail, they were ordered to apologize and to promise not to repeat their remarks anywhere in Australia or over the Internet. The pastors refused to comply and are appealing to the Supreme Court. The case has become a major cause, with churches and Christian leaders fighting to overturn the law, and Muslims pushing for a broad hate-speech law.
An obvious thing to say about laws that limit speech is that we have no evidence that they work to meet their stated goal — reducing bigotry and increasing tolerance. Banning Holocaust denial, on grounds that it is inherently anti-Semitic, has no track record of improving respect for Jews. If anything, hatred of Jews appears to be on the rise in these nations. Setting up certain groups as beyond criticism is bound to increase resentment among those not similarly favored. (Yes, we know all groups are supposed to be treated alike, but that is not the way these laws work.) In real life, the creation of protected classes sharpens intergroup tensions and leads to competition for victim status.

An even more obvious point: We are very lucky to have the First Amendment. Without it, our chattering classes would be falling all over themselves to ban speech that offends sensitive groups, just like many Eurochatterers are doing now. We know this because our campus speech codes, the models for the disastrous hate-speech laws in Europe, Canada and Australia, were the inventions of our own elites. Without a First Amendment, the distortions and suppressions of campus life would likely have gone national. No more speech codes, please. In America, we get to throw rocks at all ideologies, religious and secular, and we get to debate issues, not have them declared off limits by sensitivity-prone agents of the state.

From → Free Speech

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