Civil Liberties

As France Legalizes Insulting the President, Remember the Censorship Laws That Spurred Online Free Speech Culture


Le Grand Secret
Le Grand Secret

As noted at Reason 24/7, France just legalized insulting the head of state, rescinding a stricture on free speech that dates to 1881 and continued to be enforced within recent years (though it was finally overruled in March by the European Court of Human Rights). As ridiculous as laws against lèse-majesté are, it's worth remembering that France's own speech-muzzling laws helped launch the Internet as a haven for free speech and an effective counter to censorship. It was in 1996, that primitive era of Internet development when we all used our steam-powered differential engines to access information sent our way through pneumatic tubes, that a French court banned Le Grand Secret, a tell-all about former French President Francois Mitterand. A cybercafe owner promptly scanned the book and placed it online. And that was pretty much it for banning books.

From the Los Angeles Times:

A Paris court Thursday banned a tell-all book by Francois Mitterrand's physician disclosing that the former French president who died last week kept secret his cancer for a decade and that he was too sick to serve for part of his second term.

Mitterrand's family had asked the court to block sales of "Le Grand Secret"–"The Big Secret"–by Dr. Claude Gubler, arguing that its publication Wednesday had breached the doctor's vow of medical secrecy and invaded the late president's privacy.

That ticked off Pascal Barbraud, manager of Le Web cybercafe. As the AP reported:

A banned book that reveals Francois Mitterrand lied about his health during his entire presidency can't be found in any French bookstore. But you can read all about it on the Internet.

Pascal Barbraud, manager of Le Web, a cafe for computer enthusiasts in the eastern town of Besancon, transcribed all 190 pages of "Le Grand Secret" into his Internet site late Tuesday.

"We are thumbing our nose at the censors and other sorcerers," he said. "Between banning a book and burning it, there's only one step."

Of course, Barbraud was threatened with legal action. He promptly threatened to repost the book on Internet servers based in the United States and beyond the reach of French courts.  He didn't need to bother — free speech activists did exactly that, and not just in the US. Volunteers even translated versions into other languages, guaranteeing the revelations about Mitterand's health wider circulation than they would ever have seen in the original print form.

As an anti-climax, the ban on the book was overruled by the European Court of Human Rights in 2004. By that time, it had been widely available online for years, and in multiple languages.

Government officials haven't lost their censorship dreams. But they've lost much of their power to make those dreams real. And that loss of power was first demonstrated in a major way with Le Grand Secret.