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Frenemies of Free Speech

The damage that benevolent censors do.

Mar 21, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 26 • By SAM SCHULMAN
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This weekend is the anniversary of the first truly liberal attempt to prevent hatred by restricting free speech. On March 15, 1939, Denmark made it a criminal act to spread “false rumors or accusations” in order to incite “hatred against a group of the Danish population because of its creed, race, or nationality”—with a fine for those who did so in speech and detention or prison for those who did so in print or broadcasts. The law was designed to hamper the activities of Danish Nazi sympathizers. On May 31 the same year, Denmark made itself even more secure against Nazism by signing a non-aggression pact with Germany. Less than a year later, Hitler initiated the six-hour conquest of Denmark by putting an armored battalion on the regular ferryboat from Rostock to Denmark. The treaty didn’t stop him, nor did the fear of feloniously violating Section 266b of the Danish Penal Code by inciting hatred against Jews and Communists.

Frenemies of Free Speech


The German Army packed its bags in 1945, but Section 266b remains in force, much modernized (it now applies to hatred of any group, not just Danes, and prohibits insults to sexual identity), a standing rebuke to what Europeans call “the American version” of free speech: freedom to speak unconstrained by restrictions against “hate,” against insulting or offending individuals or groups, and without special protection for specific religions (Islam), races, or historical facts. In 2011 so far, American-style free speech has been widely condemned (for the Tucson mass murder, notably), though it has also had moments of popularity, particularly since the Arab revolutions began in Tunisia, and again with the madcap activities of public employee unions in Wisconsin. Even Tom Friedman took a holiday from his admiration for Chinese autocracy to celebrate the Twitter revolutions.

But “the European version” of free speech, if we may call it that, soldiers on doggedly. Courts in Austria, Denmark, and France have this year convicted journalists and political volunteers (none of them neo-Nazis) of hate-speech crimes, which generally took the form of making observations about the frequency of certain violent crimes among immigrant groups in Denmark and France, and in Austria about the respectability of the historical Muhammad. Fashion designer John Galliano may soon go on trial in France for racial insults uttered in a Paris bar. There is no doubt among European liberals that “hate speech” must remain restricted in this fashion. After all, as a columnist in the Netherlands’ NRC Handelsblad explained, “everyone knows it’s wrong to insult someone’s race or religion. So why shouldn’t it be a crime as well?” 

A special focus of the war against American-style free speech is the campaign to stigmatize critical discussion of Islam as Islamophobia. Anti-anti-Islamists, as Lee Smith terms Western apologists for Islamism, present a hydra-headed definition of Islamophobic speech. In New York, regarding it as in poor taste to build a mosque on the site of the 9/11 attacks is Islamophobia. In Sweden, Islamophobes betray themselves by suggesting that the suicide bomber who tried to commit mass murder in Stockholm was an Islamist. In Britain, Conservative party chief Baroness Warsi declared that the mark of Islamophobia is to distinguish between moderate and extremist Muslims (a distinction that she is famous for having made herself in a plucky BBC interview filmed just after she was egged by extremist Muslims in Novemer 2009).

The lesson is that believers in free speech should keep their opinions to themselves. Simon Jenkins wrote that freedom of speech itself, not the man who pulled the trigger, was the real culprit in the Tucson murders: “Language that might not disturb a balanced mind” can “clearly stimulate and legitimize an unbalanced one.” Thinking at all about Islam, in its rich variety of cultural and religious expression, is not only an insult, but tantamount to shouting “pedophile” in a playground. As a Norwegian anti-terror expert told the press, “Islamophobia leads to discrimination that may lead to terrorism.” 

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