The Corner

Surprised by Dieudonne’s Arrest? France Has Had Anti-Free Speech Laws on the Books for Years

Patrick points to France and Turkey, where government officials waited three days after the rally supporting freedom of speech to return to their normal curtailing of speech.  Over at Reason, Matt Welch has more on the issue:

A shocking 54 people have been arrested for speech offenses in the past week, reports the Associated Press. Jacob Sullum has a column this morning explaining why cracking down on speech is the exact wrong response to anti-speech violence. To which I would add two points:

1) As I argue in my latest editor’s note on policing in America, most laws tend to be enforced more stringently on disfavored minorities. Muslims are the least favored minority in France, which means that any crackdown is likely to come down disproportionately on their heads (despite the Interior Minister’s nod toward “Islamophobia”), increasing both the perception and reality of unfairness. And to the extent that alienation and non-assimilation of the Muslim minority contributes to the pool of potential malefactors, that seems strategically unwise.

2) Any speech made criminally taboo will thrive unchallenged in the shadows, rather than be refuted and ridiculed out in the open. If you’re alarmed by Dieudonné’s infamous quenelle gesture, how popular do you think it will get if he’s behind bars?

This is a worldwide teaching moment for free speech. France so far seems to be flunking.

I have to say I’m not surprised. The French government and most French people believe in free speech — except for all the speech that they think shouldn’t be allowed.

In addition to the law passed in November that has led to the arrest of comedian Dieudonné, there are a number of anti-speech laws already on the books in France: 

Speech in France is regulated by Section 24 of the Press Law of 1881. According to The Legal Project, Section 24 “criminalizes incitement to racial discrimination, hatred, or violence on the basis of one’s origin or membership (or non-membership) in an ethnic, national, racial, or religious group. A criminal code provision likewise makes it an offense to engage in similar conduct via private communication.”

There is also the Gayssot Law of 1990. Named after the Communist Party deputy that proposed it, the law makes Holocaust denial a criminal offense punishable by a year in prison and a fine of €45,000. A similar law was proposed for the Armenian genocide but was overturned by France’s Constitutional Council.

You will Jacob Sullum has some interesting examples about the many words and images that France treats as offensive, and hence, illegal. 

Veronique de Rugy is a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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