France is pushing a new, absolutely terrible law that could punish social-media “officials” with a year in prison for failing to delete posts that are deemed to be “hate speech” within 24 hours.
Under the law, company officials could also face fines of up to €250,000 — and the platforms themselves could face fines of 1.25 million euros, according to an article in the New York Times. The piece also notes that multiple violations could result in “fines of up to 4 percent of a company’s global revenue — meaning, potentially, tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars.” It could also punish people who abuse the reporting features on social-media sites with up to a year in prison and a fine of up to €15,000.
The Times reports that the content that would count as “hate speech” covers a wide scope of things, such as speech that disparages someone on the basis of sexual orientation, religion, nationality, race, gender identity, or disability; harassment; and propaganda tied to terrorism or war crimes.
Unlike the United States, France already has laws in place that regulate hate speech, so this proposal just represents making those regulations broader. I think that France should actually want to move in the opposite direction — or, at the very least, not make things worse by enacting this law.
People who support laws that ban “hate speech” always argue that they are necessary in order to protect people’s feelings. Although I’d agree that it’s very nice to be nice, I’d also say that there’s something that a country should be more concerned about protecting instead — and that’s its citizens’ freedoms.
Make no mistake: What does and does not count as “hate speech” is something that is completely in the eye of the beholder. What one person might consider “hate speech,” another might think of as a harmless joke. Everyone is offended by different things, and the same speech can cause different reactions from different people. This, of course, is exactly the problem with laws like the one being proposed: It would give the government the power to literally imprison people based on a completely subjective standard, and that’s not fair.
So what would be a better solution to fighting “hate speech,” rather than banning it? Well, I’d argue that the best way to counter speech you don’t like is never by banning it, but rather by using your own speech to argue against it. Thankfully, we still handle it that way in the United States, and I’m glad that we do.
Can it be difficult to read some of the vitriol that people spew online? Yes, of course it can, and that is something that I know firsthand. The thing is, though, something that I’d find much more upsetting than even the most disgusting of speech would be seeing the government have the power to tell people that they can’t use it. There is, after all, only one way to guarantee that the government never has the power to censor you, and that’s not giving them the power to censor anyone. You might want laws to silence bigots, but once you give the government the right to silence anyone, it could someday use those same laws to silence you.