What have these laws produced? Look at the convictions upheld or accepted by the European Court of Human Rights. Four Swedes who distributed leaflets that called homosexuality “deviant” and “morally destructive” and blamed it for AIDS. An Englishman who displayed in his window a 9/11 poster proclaiming, “Islam out of Britain.” A Turk who published two letters from readers angry at the government’s treatment of Kurds. A Frenchman who wrote an article disputing the plausibility of poison gas technology at a Nazi concentration camp.
Look at the defendants rescued by the court. A Dane “convicted of aiding and abetting the dissemination of racist remarks” for making a documentary in which three people “made abusive and derogatory remarks about immigrants and ethnic groups.” A man “convicted of openly inciting the population to hatred” in Turkey by “criticizing secular and democratic principles and openly calling for the introduction of Sharia law.” Another Turkish resident “convicted of disseminating propaganda” after he “criticized the United States’ intervention in Iraq and the solitary confinement of the leader of a terrorist organization.” Two Frenchmen who wrote a newspaper article that “portrayed Marshal Pétain in a favorable light, drawing a veil over his policy of collaboration with the Nazi regime.”
Beyond the court’s docket, you’ll find more prosecutions of dissent. A Swedish pastor convicted of violating hate-speech laws by preaching against homosexuality. A Serb convicted of discrimination for saying, “We are against every gathering where homosexuals are demonstrating in the streets of Belgrade and want to show something, which is a disease, like it is normal.” An Australian columnist convicted of violating the Racial Discrimination Act by suggesting that “there are fair-skinned people in Australia with essentially European ancestry … who, motivated by career opportunities available to Aboriginal people or by political activism, have chosen to falsely identify as Aboriginal.”
Denis Leroy is a cartoonist. One of his drawings representing the attack on the World Trade Centre was published in a Basque weekly newspaper … with a caption which read: “We have all dreamt of it ... Hamas did it”. Having been sentenced to payment of a fine for “condoning terrorism”, Mr Leroy argued that his freedom of expression had been infringed.
The Court considered that, through his work, the applicant had glorified the violent destruction of American imperialism, expressed moral support for the perpetrators of the attacks of 11 September, commented approvingly on the violence perpetrated against thousands of civilians and diminished the dignity of the victims. Despite the newspaper’s limited circulation, the Court observed that the drawing’s publication had provoked a certain public reaction, capable of stirring up violence and of having a demonstrable impact on public order in the Basque Country. The Court held that there had been no violation of Article 10.
How can you justify prosecuting cases like these while defending cartoonists and video makers who ridicule Mohammed? You can’t. Either you censor both, or you censor neither. Given the choice, I’ll stand with Obama. “Efforts to restrict speech,” he warned the U. N., “can quickly become a tool to silence critics and oppress minorities.”
That principle, borne out by the wretched record of hate-speech prosecutions, is worth defending. But first, we have to live up to it.
William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:
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