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Europe: Hate speech laws often used to suppress, punish left-wing viewpoints


© Susana Machiago/Pinterest
Terrorist attacks, and the emotions they spawn, almost always prompt calls for fundamental legal rights to be curtailed in the name of preventing future attacks. The formula by now is routine: The victims of the horrific violence are held up as proof that there must be restrictions on advocating whatever ideology motivated the killer to act.

In 2006, after a series of attacks carried out by Muslims, Republican Newt Gingrich called for “a serious debate about the First Amendment” so that “those who would fight outside the rules of law, those who would use weapons of mass destruction, and those who would target civilians are, in fact, subject to a totally different set of rules.”

Of Islamic radicals, the former U.S. speaker of the House argued that they do not believe in the Constitution or free speech, and the U.S. should thus “use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us to stop them from recruiting people.” In an essay defending his remarks, Gingrich argued that “free speech should not be an acceptable cover for people who are planning to kill other people who have inalienable rights of their own,” adding that “the fact is not all speech is permitted under the Constitution.”

The white nationalist violence at Charlottesville has led to similar arguments. While polling data and anecdotal evidence have long shown an erosion in the belief in free speech among younger Americans, including those who identify as liberals or leftists, Charlottesville has prompted a full-scale debate about the merits of preserving the right to express “hate speech,” however that might be defined.

An excellent Guardian article on Monday by Julia Carrie Wong examines the implications of the growing liberal/left desire for “hate speech” to be restricted – either by the state wielding the power of “hate speech” laws or by private tech executives prohibiting the use of their platforms to disseminate what they regard as “hateful ideas.” As Wong correctly notes, “Many Americans increasingly favorEuropean-style limitations on hate speech.” Numerous op-eds and blogposts have been published recently explicitly calling for such restrictions. As a result, it is well worth examining how those “European-style limitations” operate in practice, and against whom they are applied.

Many Americans who long for Europe’s hate speech restrictions assume that those laws are used to outlaw and punish expression of the bigoted ideas they most hate: racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny. Often, such laws are used that way. There are numerous cases in western Europe and Canada of far-right extremists being arrested, fined, or even jailed for publicly spouting that type of overt bigotry.

But hate speech restrictions are used in those countries to suppress, outlaw, and punish more than far-right bigotry. Those laws have frequently been used to constrain and sanction a wide range of political views that many left-wing censorship advocates would never dream could be deemed “hateful,” and even against opinions which many of them likely share.

France is probably the most extreme case of hate speech laws being abused in this manner. In 2015, France’s highest court upheld the criminal conviction of 12 pro-Palestinian activists for violating restrictions against hate speech. Their crime? Wearing T-shirts that advocated a boycott of Israel – “Long live Palestine, boycott Israel,” the shirts read – which, the court ruled, violated French law that “prescribes imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000 for parties that ‘provoke discrimination, hatred or violence toward a person or group of people on grounds of their origin, their belonging or their not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a certain religion.'”

As we reported at the time, France’s use of hate speech laws to outlaw activism against Israeli policy – on the grounds that it constitutes “anti-Semitism” and hatred against people for their national origin – is part of a worldwide trend. In May of last year, Canada’s then-conservative government threatened to use the nation’s rigorous hate speech laws to prosecute Israel boycott advocates on the ground that such activism is “the new face of anti-Semitism.” As Haaretz reported about the French prosecutions: “Pro-Israel activists in neighboring Belgium are pushing for a similar law to Lellouche, hoping it might also put a dent in BDS activities in that country.” Other French activists have been convicted of “inciting racial hatred” for applying boycott stickers to vegetables imported from Israel.

There can be little question that if the power to ban “hate speech” were vested in the hands of U.S. officials or courts, the same thing would happen. It is a virtually unquestioned bipartisan consensus that advocating a boycott of Israel constitutes hatred and anti-Semitism. In her 2016 AIPAC speech, Hillary Clinton cited the boycott movement as evidence that “anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world.” A group of bipartisan U.S. legislators are currently sponsoring legislation to make it illegal for businesses to participate in any international boycott of Israel, a bill that the American Civil Liberties Union says can be used to criminalize advocacy of boycotts.

Pro-Israel students often claim that advocating a boycott of Israel is tantamount to campus “bullying” and anti-Semitism. Campus censorship principles in the U.S. are most often applied against pro-Palestinian groups.

Does anyone doubt that high on the list of “hate speech” for many U.S. officials, judges, and functionaries would be groups, such as Black Lives Matter and antifa, far-left groups that fight against white supremacists? Some GOP-controlled state legislatures are already arguing that BLM should be officially classified as a “hate group.” Beyond what many officials say is the group’s hatred for police officers, they also “point to its platform that accuses Israel of carrying out genocide against the Palestinians.”

In the UK, “hate speech” has come to include anyone expressing virulent criticism of UK soldiers fighting in war. In 2012, a British Muslim teenager, Azhar Ahmed, was arrested for committing a “racially aggravated public order offence.” His crime? After British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, he cited on his Facebook page the countless innocent Afghans killed by British soldiers and wrote: “All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE F*****N SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soldiers grave & wish him hell because that where he is going.”

The police spokesperson justifying the teenager’s arrest said: “He didn’t make his point very well, and that is why he has landed himself in bother.” So those of you craving European-style hate speech laws want to empower the police – and then judges – to decide when a point is sufficiently ill-made and offensive to justify arrest. Ahmed escaped a jail term, and was ultimately given “merely” a fine and community service, but only “because he quickly took down his unpleasant posting and tried to apologise to those he offended.”

Comment: One man’s hateful idea is another man’s conscientious advocacy. You can’t legislate good taste or decency, but someone can take away the freedom of speech and expression for everyone in the guise of intolerance, the tightening noose of censorship, the sounds of silence.


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