In 1670, the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza wrote an emphatic defense of freedom of thought and speech. Spinoza affirmed that freedom of expression is a universal and inalienable right and concluded: “Hence it is that that authority which is exerted over the mind is characterized as tyrannical.” He also argued that freedom of expression is indispensable for peaceful coexistence between members of different faiths and races in a diverse society, holding up as an example 17th-century Amsterdam, “where the fruits of this liberty of thought and opinion are seen in its wonderful increase, and testified to by the admiration of every people. In this most flourishing republic and noble city, men of every nation, and creed, and sect live together in the utmost harmony.”
In modern-day Europe, Spinoza’s insight has not so much been forgotten as turned on its head. There is a pan-European consensus, fertilized by multiculturalism, that tolerance and peaceful coexistence require the restriction rather than the protection of freedom of speech. This has led to the mushrooming of hate-speech and so-called anti-discrimination laws that criminalize expressions characterized as “hateful” or merely “derogatory” toward members of religious, ethnic, national, or racial groups.
The most prominent victim of hate-speech laws is Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who is currently facing charges of insulting Islam and inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims; in 2009, he was absurdly denied entry to the United Kingdom on the basis of his views. But the Wilders trial is far from unique. In the U.K., Harry Taylor, an atheist campaigner for “reason and rationality,” was sentenced to a six-month suspended prison term and banned from distributing “offensive material.” Taylor’s crime was leaving satirical caricatures of Jesus, the pope, and Mohammed in a multi-faith prayer room at Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport. According to the jury, the caricatures constituted “religiously aggravated intentional harassment, alarm or distress.” In Belgium, the admittedly quasi-fascist Flemish-nationalist party Vlaams Blok (now Vlaams Belang) was convicted of racism in 2004. In Denmark, where freedom of speech is often given greater weight than elsewhere in Europe, more than 40 persons have been convicted of hate speech since 2000.
Should European victims of hate-speech laws turn for protection to the plethora of human-rights conventions signed by European states, they will discover that no help is forthcoming. The European Court of Human Rights has decided that hate speech is not protected by the European Convention on Human Rights, and the same court has also sanctioned the seizure and censorship of “blasphemous” films and books that insult religious feelings. It distinguishes between expressions that constitute “gratuitous offence” or aim to “destroy the rights of others” and expressions that “contribute to a question of indisputable public interest” — a hopelessly arbitrary standard that turns the very court that is supposed to safeguard freedom of expression into the ultimate censor.
The EU recently adopted a framework decision obligating all 27 member states to criminalize hate speech. This precludes even a unanimous national parliament from abolishing or easing its hate-speech laws. One might have expected the EU’s rights watchdog, the Fundamental Rights Agency, to be up in arms about this development, but think again: The agency “very much welcomes” the framework decision and is actively lobbying for new EU-wide legislation extending hate-speech laws to cover sexual orientation and gender identity.