The Magazine

Illiberal Europe

The long and growing list of things you can't legally say.

Apr 10, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 28 • By GERARD ALEXANDER
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The expansion of the speech laws beyond the Holocaust is revealing. Especially once it became evident that neo-Nazis were politically marginal, it was unclear exactly what risk Holocaust deniers posed. An alternative interpretation is that bans on denial were never really about averting the menace of Nazi revivalism. They were motivated instead by the fact that good people were offended by Holocaust denial. That this is really what's at work is confirmed by laws prohibiting denial of events like the Armenian murders--cases that pose no risk of old genocidal agendas' being revived.

So genocide-denial laws can now be used to sanction professional historians whose research leads them to findings that these laws classify as unacceptable. And the anti-Nazi slope has proven more slippery than that. Denial laws have been supplemented by new laws that are even more prone to sanctioning reasonable people.

ESPECIALLY SINCE THE 1970s, Western Europeans have been passing bans on speech that "incites hatred" based on race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, and other criteria. These were adopted or beefed up in the 1980s in the face of rising violence against minorities and rising far-right parties like the French National Front. Such laws are now in place in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Sweden, Norway, France, Britain, and elsewhere. France's 1972 Holocaust denial law was expanded by the 1990 Gayssot law, which extended sanctions to denial of other crimes against humanity and points of view deemed racist. France's Conseil Supérieur de l'Audiovisuel monitors broadcasters for any statements that might incite racial hatred. Earlier British legislation against incitement of racial hatred was expanded in 1986 and was extended again in February 2006, this time to criminalize intentionally "stirring up hatred against persons on religious grounds." This is spreading to the European Union level, where a stream of rules now prohibits the broadcast, including online, of any program or ad that incites "hatred based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation" or--crucially--is "offensive to religious or political beliefs."

The highest-profile prosecutions under these laws have been of people and organizations very vulnerable to the charge of racism. Incitement charges have repeatedly been brought against the French National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen, who regularly trades in slurs against blacks and Arabs. Similar charges were leveled against the Vlaams Blok, a Flemish nationalist party advocating the breakup of the bilingual Belgian state, which sometimes luridly stereotyped immigrants from the developing world as predisposed to criminality and welfare dependency. In November 2004, Belgium's highest court found the party guilty of racism, allowing the government to deny it state funding and access to television, in effect forcing the Blok to dissolve and re-form under a new name. At the time, the Blok was jockeying for first place in polls among Belgium's Flemish voters.

But the anti-incitement laws now regularly target people who are well within the political mainstream. This is political correctness backed up with prison time. Britain's then-home secretary Jack Straw remarked in 1999 on criminal activity by people many of whom posed as gypsies or "travelers"--hardly a slur on all gypsies even without that qualifier. But a Travelers' group filed a complaint of inciting racial hatred, prompting a formal investigation and extensive media coverage asking whether Straw was racist. In 2002, the prominent French novelist Michel Houellebecq was charged with inciting racial hatred in a novel and interview in which he referred to Islam as "the stupidest religion." Veteran Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci was motivated by 9/11 to criticize Islam as violent and subversive of traditional European mores. As a result she faced a French attempt in 2002 to ban her book as racist, and she is scheduled to stand trial in Italy in June for statements "offensive to Islam." One of her accusers, in turn, faces charges for calling the Catholic Church a "criminal organization."

In May 2005, Le Monde, France's premier center-left newspaper, was found guilty of defaming Jews in a 2002 editorial that criticized Israeli policies while referring to Israel as "a nation of refugees." The appeals court found such juxtapositions made Israelis synonymous with Jews, so criticism of the former constituted incitement of hatred against the latter. After it published a series of controversial cartoons of Muhammad, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten was formally investigated to determine whether the cartoons constituted prohibited racist or blasphemous speech.