Brief Explanation (For Americans): Why Europe Has Anti-Hate Speech Laws

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In the wake of the massive “Je Suis Charlie” rally in Paris following the murders at Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket, we are inevitably seeing some U.S.-based media now questioning France’s commitment to free speech. Why? Because France has anti-hate speech laws. One example:

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Some background, and context, clearly appears to be necessary here.

Within Europe, and that obviously includes France, there has long been a debate about the reach of anti-hate speech laws. How far is too far? Where does one draw the line? (In 2007, Charlie Hebdo itself was taken to court by the Grand Mosque of Paris, and emerged victorious.)

Those anti-hate speech laws are rooted primarily in the criminalization of hate directed at groups and/ or religions. They themselves grew out of the struggle against Holocaust denial. The German national broadcaster, Deutsche Welle, explained in 2005:

Aside from a small group of right-wing extremists, a broad consensus in German society sees the World War II extermination of six million Jews as a historical fact that cannot be denied, according to historian Wolfgang Benz, who heads the Center for Anti-Semitism Research in Berlin.

And why can’t it be denied?

There was no Holocaust in the U.S. or in the U.K. Neither had been physically invaded and occupied by the Nazis of course. (Although the U.K. associated Channel Islands just off the coast of Normandy were, and Jews were rounded up and deported from there to concentration camps on the continent.) Hence why the Holocaust is such a sensitive subject on the continent – where it happened.

During the Nazi occupation of France from 1940-1944, the French collaborationist Vichy government – which largely did Hitler’s bidding – was actively involved in transporting tens of thousands of French Jews to death camps like Auschwitz. French government resources were employed. French police and military were involved. French state railways were used.

The importance of that cannot be emphasized strongly enough.

After the war, however, some prominent Frenchmen began saying and writing that Jews had stirred it up, that it wasn’t that bad, that the Allies had invented all of it….

As views like that grew increasingly loud, the French government essentially decided that the depth of France’s involvement as a state in behaving as it had towards a section of its citizenry (Jews) between 1940-1944 had been so heinous that it would be made illegal for anyone to publicly argue that it did not happen, or to trivialize it. What resulted is called the Gayssot Act. The former leader of the far-right National Front political party, Jean-Marie Le Pen, is probably the best known individual convicted under it. (The party is now headed by his daughter, Marine, who has stated she does not share all of her father’s views.)

In short, the Holocaust is not part of ordinary political debate. It is placed legally well-beyond that. Denying it happened is seen as at least as bad as shouting “Fire!” in a crowded movie theater when there’s no fire.

When it comes to where free speech ends, that latter is an expression with which Americans are well-familiar. Moreover, some Americans who posture France “doesn’t understand the meaning of free speech” likely are also aware many in the U.S. firmly believe, and U.S. courts do uphold that, for example, state employment may come with outside of the workplace free speech strings attached. Left-wing Think Progress details:

….Last week, Atlanta’s former fire chief, Kelvin Cochran, was dismissed due to a self-published book Cochran authored entitled Who Told You That You Were Naked? In that book, Cochran attacks “uncleanness — whatever is opposite of purity; including sodomy, homosexuality, lesbianism, pederasty, bestiality, all other forms of sexual perversion,” and he describes sex between two men as a “vile, vulgar and inappropriate” act that “defile[s] their body-temple and dishonor[s] God.”

In announcing his decision to fire Cochran, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed (D) cited the city’s nondiscrimination policy, adding that anyone who “creates an environment where that is a concern” will not remain a city employee….

So free speech is hardly absolute in the U.S. either.

European governments are battling to come to grips with Jews being increasingly harassed and even murdered for being Jews. That is happening barely 70 years after six million of them were murdered across Europe in a systematic, criminal enterprise that aimed to slaughter every one of them, an effort that frankly has no equal to any other crime in a human history that we know is littered with appalling criminality. South African Field Marshal Jan Smuts – a white South African who headed a minority, segregationist, racist government, no less – had observed to the effect that Hitler had lifted the lid off of Hell and allowed us all to look down into it.

Speech restrictions tend to leave us with an uncomfortable feeling. Most of us don’t like the idea of criminalizing merely what someone says, or writes, or does for stand-up “comedy.” But as Americans who did not experience the horrors of the Holocaust first-hand and occupied Europe’s Nazi-collaborationist governments’ involvement in that butchery, perhaps we should cut the French and other Europeans today some slack on this one and save the snarky tweets for something else.

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UPDATE, January 17: Fox News commentator and host Anthony Napolitano thinks that Woodrow Wilson (yes, really) has been the big problem:

In the post-World War II era, French governments have adopted a policy advanced upon them nearly 100 years ago by Woodrow Wilson. He pioneered the modern idea that countries’ constitutions don’t limit governments; they unleash them. Thus, even though the French Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, French governments treat speech as a gift from the government, not as a natural right of all persons, as our Constitution does.

Dearie me (as my wife would say). Give us all strength. Not a single mention in his long-winded, all over the place, harangue about the Holocaust.

Fox News Facts” once again.

2 comments

  1. For a “hate speech” law to be accepted as a fair compromise between the right of free speech and the protection of society, it must be impartial. Right now, it is Muslims that are the target of hateful comments and imagery, and it happens with impunity. If European hate laws protect some more than others, the law is an ass.

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    1. I take your point. It’s not meant as an exhaustive explanation. It’s an overview of why, as I understand it, the laws came about in the first place. How they have since been “expanded” is another matter.

      My main conern underlying the post is I feel too many American commentators, most of whom had probably never heard of Charlie Hebdo prior to the murders, rushed out “boiler plate” post-massacre op-eds or tweeted furiously in attempts to shoehorn “Europe” into the perpetual political argument between left and right in the U.S. As (right-wing) Napolitano especially tries to do. There’s only one, huge problem with that: “Europe” is not the United States.

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