A Defense of France's 'Hate Speech' Laws: People Often Say Offensive Things Without Being Punished

The very existence of speech-policing tribunals offends freedom of expression.



In a recent Washington Post essay, Erik Bleich, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, says "French hate speech laws are less simplistic than you think." He is looking at me (among others). Specifically, Bleich says I was "incorrect" when I faulted France's government for "endorsing the illiberal idea that people have a right not to be offended." There is no such right in France, Bleich says, because people can say offensive things without being fined or going to jail, provided they do not violate specific rules. For instance, they are allowed to offend Muslims, as Charlie Hebdo's cartoonists did with their depictions of Muhammad, as long as they do not cross the line into insults, defamation, or incitement to hatred, discrimination, or violence.

Well, yes, but one of my main points in the column to which Bleich refers is that the line between permitted and prohibited speech is awfully fuzzy, which leads to self-censorship and invites arbitrary, unpredictable enforcement. Take novelist Michel Houellebecq's 2001 comment that Islam is "the stupidest religion." The courts decided that was OK because Houellebecq was attacking a set of ideas, not Muslims as people. But it is hardly a leap to conclude that Houellebecq was calling Muslims stupid, which certainly sounds like an insult based on religion. Or consider the Jyllands-Posten cartoon that showed Muhammad wearing a bomb-shaped turban, which was reprinted by Charlie Hebdo. Was that an attack on Muslims in general, or merely on Muslim fundamentalists? French judges disagreed.

Regardless of whether those cases were rightly or wrongly decided, the fact that people can be hauled before a court and forced to explain why their words or images did not violate a vague, highly subjective prohibition tends to put a damper on their willingness to express their views. Bleich, author of a book called The Freedom to Be Racist?, seems oblivious to this chilling effect, suggesting that the rarity of jail terms and the possibility of acquittal shows the French system is working pretty well:

According to official statistics, in 2011 there were 359 convictions that involved hate speech, with the vast majority (293) involving public insult toward an individual, such as calling someone a "dirty Jew." Most penalties involved fines or suspended sentences, with 11 cases resulting in jail terms. My research-in-progress shows that among all decisions rendered by France's highest court between 1972 and 2012, 58 percent have tilted toward speech restrictions while 42 percent upheld free speech. Outcomes have thus been more balanced than one-sided.

Another way of putting it is that France's highest court generally rules against free speech. But regardless of the courts' track record, it is the very possibility of such inquisitions that offends freedom of expression and inhibits debate. "Our marketplace of ideas would be enriched by fewer one-sided proclamations about free speech," Bleich writes, "and a greater number of informed discussions about how countries like France pursue the difficult balance between protecting free speech and restricting hate speech." Many of us argue that governments should not pursue this "difficult balance" at all, not just because it is impossible to achieve but because it chills speech, sows resentment and division, undermines the rule of law, and punishes people for conduct that violates no one's rights.

[Thanks to Marc Sandhaus for the tip.]

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  1. Why are we questioning the wisdom of the French? Just look at their economic wisdom, they said a 75% tax on the rich would be all the jazz and ... oh, ok, never mind.

  2. So...hate speech laws are ok because they are subjective?

  3. When it comes to criminality, fuzzy lines are the very best lines. It leads to arbitrary use of power, and what's the use of power if you can't use it arbitrarily?

    1. Because, fuck you, that's why.

  4. I assume Dr. Bleich allows students in his policsci classes to object if they find anything he says offense. This objection is followed by a hearing and he removes things from his syllabus if requested?


    1. I dunno...he could work at an institution with a horrible "speech code" and is located in a state with terrible academic freedom laws.

      1. Yeah, but they do have a ski slope.

        When i visited middlebury i got nearly an identical comment from the student tour guide that i got at both Dartmouth and Colby =

        I asked them, "so, what's the social life like?" - there was a pause, then "Uh, yeah. You know. Dorms. You smoke weed?"

        Yes, I smoked weed, but the lackluster attitude struck me as sending unsubtle 'Very Very Boring' signals.

        1. Tell me about it. I went to school in northern New England myself.

        2. Hey man, during my pre-frosh tour at Johns Hopkins, two people yelled out the windows of the quad "DON'T COME HERE, IT'S HORRIBLE!". I didn't listen to them. And they turned out to be right.

          1. We talked about this before.

            The two places where the 'student tour guide' literally insisted i "escape while you still can!" were Hopkins and Dartmouth. I almost ignored them because it seemed like a cliche thing for some Gen X college kid to say.

  5. People who support hate speech laws do it for one and one reason only. They think that they will be able to use the laws, or their political allies will be able to use them, to shut people up they don't like. And they think it will be used in only that direction forever. Anyone who is honest, or who isn't so devastatingly stupid that they realize that political winds can shift, would not be for any kind of hate speech law, because they will realize that eventually it can and will be used against them or people who agree with them. Or hopefully they just think suppression of speech is wrong.

    The amount of effort and made-up philosophy that the prog/SJW/fellow traveler crowd puts into finding ways to shut people up, either legally or through browbeating and attempted social pressure, is amazing. They do not want debate. Ever. Which glaringly indicates that the reason they don't want debate is that they'll lose, every time. And they know it.

    1. I think some of them honestly think that what they call hate speech causes a real harm. They think that speech involving, say, bigoted stereotypes or attacks on minority groups will lead to things like those groups being the target of discrimination or attacks. Remember that Europe has had recurring problems with things like fascism and pogroms and such. Not valuing liberty in other areas in life they don't see why these harms should be combated by restrictions on that liberty.

      What I always wonder is, a lot of these people think that society is rigged against minority groups, they're powerless and vulnerable and such you know. Why in the world then do they think that these, or any, restrictions are not going to be enforced against the very kinds of groups they want to protect?

    2. And they know it.

      I'm not sure about that. I chalk it up more to the fact that most of them have never been seriously challenged before in their lives, having grown up in an everyone-gets-a-ribbon, graded for participation world. It's not the threat to their reasoning they fear; it's the threat to their self-esteem.

      1. Whether it is the one or the other is irrelevant. The point is that they, for whichever reason, are very scared of letting other people bring up differing opinions or of other people punching holes in their "arguments". I mean, think about things like "check your privilege"; it is specifically and wholly designed and meant to shut people down and tell them they are not allowed to have an opinion on a subject. Not "you're wrong"--no, it's "you're not even allowed to talk about this or have an opinion because of skin color or gender or whatever we feel like making up". Think of the difference between "well I think you're wrong because of X" and "you are not even allowed to speak about this subject because of X".

        And the people who believe in hate speech laws overlap incredibly highly with the people who believe that it's perfectly fine to tell people they are not allowed to have opinions about subjects.

        1. Well, of course. The existence of differing opinions means that they don't occupy as high a moral ground as they imagine themselves to inhabit. They like to think that their opinions are so righteous that they are obvious, and that disagreement is ipso facto evidence of one's moral depravity.

      2. " It's not the threat to their reasoning they fear; it's the threat to their self-esteem."


        I was googling for reference to the 'sticks and stones' nursery rhyme, and 90% of what I came across were *modifications* which insist that au contraire, words are indeed more damaging and destructive than mere *physical violence*, and that any suggesting otherwise is *dangerous and cruel*. WORDS MATTER!!

        If there's anything millenials are *most* retarded about (in a long list of challengers)... it seems to be free speech. Some of them just fucking hate it. Which is odd, because they're also the most likely to say horrible shit on the internet; but then are terrified of offending anyone face to face.

        1. That was published in The Dartmouth? Of all places?

          But yes, the growing belief in logomancy disturbs and irritates.

    3. They do not want debate.

      Debate would mean having to use logic & thoughts to justify a position. Every prog I have ever known only knows how to have emotions.

  6. ""French hate speech laws are less simplistic than you think." He is looking at me (among others)"

    Je Suis Simpliste?

    As noted - one man's "reasonable disagreement" is another person's "incitement to hatred".

    What would french law make of Salon.com's fascination with the topic of

    "White People = Source of ALL Evil? Or just the Most Evil?"

    I fully support their crusade myself. It is an endless source of humor. But would *everything* they write about The Whitey pass a French Judge? Would their overuse of the terms "Vile" and "Hideous" in that context eventually be considered un toque sur la ligne?

    Is there no French translation for 'Sticks and Stones'? (not the words, but rather the sentiment)

    Liberals in general seem to have the same attitude as the French, or Bleich (*why do i want to pronounce that 'Bleech', as in 'yuck'? hate speech?), in that they think we can make 'exceptions' for hate speech, and that 'they know it when they see it'; and they completely discount the 'chilling effect' as non-existent, while simultaneously arguing that daring to investigate Rape Claims do exactly that - frighten people into silence.

    IMHO the issue is always CONTROL, and how there is endless demand for more of it. Its not 'hate speech' they oppose (*how could they? They love the stuff); its *who* gets to use it. TOP MEN will decide.

    Principals (greater than) Principles

  7. it is the very possibility of such inquisitions that offends freedom of expression and inhibits debate.

    That's a feature.

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