The War on Free Speech Escalates

Assaults on freedom of speech in Europe and the United States.


There's been a lot of hand-wringing lately about the rise of the far right in Europe, and justifiably so. But the right has no monopoly on threatening other people's fundamental human rights, and politicians to the left do not seem interested in granting it one.

Last week the French National Assembly approved a plan by the Socialist government to outlaw pro-life websites. The proposal goes far beyond consumer-protection efforts; it prohibits sites based on point of view.

The legislation would impose hefty fines and up to two years in prison on site operators who "exert psychological or moral pressure" on a woman seeking information about abortion.

This means a website that claims something as mild as "Abortion takes a human life" could be shut down, since most people's moral intuitions tell them taking human life is immoral. In effect, French lawmakers are trying to silence one half of a very divisive debate.

Perhaps this is not surprising, given that the government banned advertisements showing happy children with Down syndrome because they might disturb some women who had abortions. The French Council of State (an appropriately Orwellian name) decided such ads were "inappropriate."

Not to be outdone, centrist German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the same thing when she proposed banning the full-face veil worn by some Muslim women. "The full veil is not appropriate here," Merkel said the other day. "It should be banned wherever it is legally possible." (France banned the burqa five years ago, and prohibited hijabs, along with "conspicuous" symbols of Christian and Jewish faiths, in the schools in 2004.)

Prohibiting the veil violates freedom of religion, since many Muslims believe their faith enjoins them to wear it. But it also violates freedom of speech, since many Muslims wear it not only to obey their faith but also to express it—or simply for the sake of modesty, or to show solidarity with other Muslims. And yet numerous other European countries (or parts of them) have taken steps toward, or enacted, similar bans.

Freedom of speech is valued in Europe, but not to the degree it traditionally has been valued in America. Germany prohibits Holocaust denial, as well as other forms of hate speech, which are protected by the First Amendment in the U.S.—so long as they do not incite violence.

A few months ago Germany even threatened to prosecute a comedian for his insulting poem about Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The case was eventually dropped.

Other countries also are tightening the noose. The European Union's Framework Decision on Combating Racism and Xenophobia requires member states to forbid hate speech. The Danish parliament also has passed legislation to prohibit "religious teaching" that "explicitly condones" everything from murder to polygamy and even spanking. It imposes a punishment of up to three years in prison—but only on faith leaders who espouse such views. Politicians and the average man on the street can espouse them all they want.

Why should Americans, who enjoy the protection of the First Amendment, care about any of this? Two reasons. First, the (flawed) rationale behind such limitations is increasingly accepted here. Second, the impetus to censor speech does not have a clear stopping point.

European limits on speech often are imposed in the name of social harmony. If you ban hate speech, you will stem the growth of racist hate, goes the idea. But that premise seems to be false.

As an article in Foreign Policy notes, "A new report from Germany's domestic intelligence agency shows not only that there were 500 more extreme-right entities in 2015 than in 2014, but also that there has been a 42 percent increase in violent acts by right-wing extremists over that same period. American NGO Human Rights First also documented a doubling of anti-Semitic hate crimes in France from 2014-2015. A recent report by two Norwegian researchers suggests that an environment where controversial expressions are filtered out may increase the risk of extremist violence."

This makes some intuitive sense. As Americans have just seen, resentment against political correctness played a role in elevating Donald Trump's campaign—and with it, a reactionary alt-right that is far more vocal and open about its tribal animosities than a year or two ago.

The second reason to be concerned is the manner in which the impulse to censor metastasizes over time. Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses, where freedom of expression is often sharply curtailed by Draconian speech codes, designated "free speech zones," heckler vetoes of controversial speakers, and a willingness to take seriously complaints that ought to be laughed off the grounds.

When students at Emory University objected in March to chalk graffiti reading "Trump 2016," the school president met with the protesters and then sent an email about how the students had "heard a message, not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory's own." So … they heard a message that challenged their values. And?

Last month, student groups at George Washington University issued a collective letter that reasoned as follows: (1) The Fraternal Order of Police union endorsed Trump. (2) "The FOP includes over 10,000 members in Washington D.C., many of which have jurisdiction over GW's campus." Therefore, (3) the use of campus security guards to protect the safety of GW students "is an act of violence, especially for Black students."

If you were to ask students like those whether the government should ban websites that "exert moral pressure" against abortion, what would they say? "Yes, of course," seems an entirely plausible answer.

Such assaults on freedom of expression are disturbing because they are not made for the sake of protecting some other right, such as the individual right to privacy. (Women have a right to abortion, but not a right to a world in which abortion is never criticized.) Rather, those who advocate such restrictions are willing to sacrifice a fundamental human right for the sake of far less compelling considerations, such as social harmony or the avoidance of hurt feelings.

A similar set of warped priorities drives many advocates of campaign-finance reform who excoriate the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United protecting political advertising. Those advocates are not merely willing but eager to subjugate an intrinsic and crucial human right for the sake of avoiding hypothetical and contingent threats to a synthetic political order. Some go so far as to complain that the First Amendment is a "straitjacket for our institutions of democratic governance," instead of what they think it should be—their handmaiden.

None of this is meant to deny that the right also sustains open hostilities against free expression. Reporters Without Borders says there has been "a deep and disturbing decline in respect for media freedom at both the global and regional levels."

In particular, press freedom in "Europe and the Balkans declined 6.5 percent, above all because of the growing influence of extremist movements and ultraconservative governments. The Central Asia/Eastern Europe region's already bad score deteriorated by 5 percent as a result of the increasingly glacial environment for media freedom and free speech in countries with authoritarian regimes."

Here in the U.S., members of the media have been properly alarmed by Donald Trump's various threats, explicit and implied, to "open up" libel laws so that he can "sue and win lots of money" when papers write "hit pieces" or "purposefully negative" articles. Mustn't be negative.

Late last month Trump proposed prison time for anyone who burns the flag. He could have been taking a page from Hillary Clinton, who did just the same back in 2005.

The argument for banning flag-burning is a simplistic and painfully familiar one: Burning the flag hurts people's feelings. Hypersensitive campus snowflakes—and French legislators—know it well.

This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.