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EU to mount assault on free speech January 9, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Culture, European Politics, Film and Television, Freedom of speech, media, Media and Journalism, racism, The Left.

It is an article of faith in leftist circles that only the right is opposed to free speech. Beneath the thin veneer of newly suited BNP fascists are people determined to remove the limited rights to free speech enjoyed in western Europe. The left, as the source of all things good and progressive, is by it’s very nature a supporter of free speech as the concept itself is a basic requirement of democracy, and a right long fought for by the political left over the centuries.

Or so the story goes. The reality is that the struggle against racism and fascism can often slide a little into using the very tactics we are fighting against. Hence, it was with a mounting sense of depression and no surprise at all, that I saw the German presidency is considering resurrecting an EU law stuck in the ratification process since 2003 designed to combat racism and xenophobia.

The law would, it seems, make it an offence to publicaly incite ‘discrimination, violence or hatred against a group of persons or members of a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin’. It would also allow for the punishment of ‘public condoning, denial or trivialisation of crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes’. The words you’re looking for are ‘broad’, ‘sweeping’, ‘dangerous’, ‘non-discriminatory’ etc.

It is regrettably necessary at this point to record my opposition to all of the above. Frank Little is no stranger to standing by the side of the road, placard in hand, objecting to racists or fascists. I have no sneaking regard for mass murderers or the perpetrators of genocide. I am simply a committed supporter of free speech. It should be redundant in political life to have to point out that one can defend the rights of people with whom one disagrees to articulate a position with which one disagrees. Yet opponents of this proposal risk being labelled as racists, or being ‘soft’ on racism.

The kind of measure we are talking about above is sweeping in it’s implications. It would, for example, make the entire Turkish government criminals as they continue, wrongly in my view, to deny the Armenian genocide ever took place. Does ‘trivialisation’ of genocide include satire? When it came out Life is Beautiful, the Italian film about a Jewish man who tries to convince his son that the Holocaust is not taking place, was accused of trivialising and ridiculing the suffering of the Jewish people. Is Roberto Benigni to be hauled before the courts for not taking the Holocaust seriously enough?

We have already had a flavour of this. The French parliament describing denial of the Armenian genocide a crime. A number of EU member states including Austria, Belgium, Poland, France, Germany and the Czech Republic already have legal penalities for denying the Holocaust. The European Court of Human Rights has said that invoking the right to free speech to propagate denials of crimes against humanity is contrary to the spirit of the Convention on Human Rights in the first place. A nice bit of wordplay btw. The theory is that the right to free speech is not an end in itself, merely something that contributes towards a free society, so therefore cannot be used to defend the exercise of free speech in regard of those things the Court believes do not contribute towards a better world.

Yes, the Holocaust took place, but why do we deny the right of those people who believe it did not take place to put forward their points of view and, as they have been, be ridiculed by it? Why must we erode the right to free speech in the grand cause of combating racism and xenophobia? Do people think making racism illegal is going to end it? I would argue it would make racists, especially organised ones, more careful, more thoughtful and more subtle.

Regrettably, the sheer volume of EU law and lack of information in the Observer’s article means a 20 minute search and I am no closer to finding the law in draft form, so more thorough examination is not yet possible, but the implications for free speech in Europe from people embarked on a grand crusade against racism, xenophobia and miscellaneous bad things should not be ignored. We need more free speech in Europe, not less of it.


1. Wednesday - January 9, 2007

I have to disagree with your opening statement. It has not been my observation that leftists think only the right is opposed to free speech. Leftists couch their opposition to it in different terms, of course, but in general I’ve found them quite open about their limits.


2. smiffy - January 9, 2007

Tsk, 20 minutes? A trip to good old Statewatch throws up this:

Click to access eu-draft-racism-measure-2.pdf

There may be a more recent version, but I think this draft is pretty much in line with what’s been reported.

On the post itself, I’d unreservedly agree to your objections to this law. However, I wouldn’t be quite as pessimistic about it. I doubt very much if it’s likely to gain agreement, given that unanimity among Member States would be required. I’d be much more worried about a watered-down version, perhaps removing the issue of genocide denial but leaving in incitement to racial hatred. being proposed, which it tends to be harder to argue against, and which may gain assent as a ‘compromise’ (the most dangerous word in EU-parlance).


3. franklittle - January 9, 2007

Thank you smiffy. My research abilities are shamed.

As to unanimity, according to the EU Observer article it was the Italians who kicked up stink about it last time, hardly an indication of overwhelming opposition. I wouldn’t be optimistic as much as hopeful maybe.


4. smiffy - January 9, 2007

True, but it’s also important to bear in mind that with EU fights, states tend to be happier letting someone else do the fighting, even if they support the position of the dissenter (in this case, Italy). At one point in the document it lists the states which have reserves on the draft (essentially meaning they don’t support it at the moment). In this case, the British would be the ones to watch.

While there’s been a gradual, but significant, encroachment on freedom of expression under the Blair government, I couldn’t see them agreeing on the genocide denial provision (given the likely domestic fallout, for little or no benefit). A watered-down proposal, though, might be more likely to gain acceptance and is pretty worrying.

What’s most depressing of all is the willingness of certain states to push this, indicating a complete lack of recognition on their part of the civil liberties implications of these kinds of laws. One would hope that, after 60-odd years, there might be some kind of inclination to review the purpose of laws brought in at the end of the war (and associated laws introduced since then). Apparently not.


5. Eagle - January 12, 2007

I’m blown away by your opening statement (which I know you disagree with). “It is an article of faith in leftist circles that only the right is opposed to free speech.” Is that true? Are leftists living in that tight a cocoon?

Is it the left or the right that made it a crime for church pastors in Sweden to preach that homosexuality is immoral, abnormal, wrong? Maybe people on the left agree with such a restriction, but surely they recognize it’s a restriction on one’s freedom of speech? Don’t they?

That’s only one example.


6. The well-meaning Free Speech crackdown « The Cedar Lounge Revolution - April 20, 2007

[…] and Television, Freedom of speech, European Politics, Culture, media. trackback Some time ago, I posted about the announcement from the German Presidency of the EU that they were proposing […]


7. cearta.ie » Blog Archive » Holocaust Denial in the EU - April 20, 2007

[…] (20 April 2007): There is a typically incisive post today over on Cedar Lounge Revolution on this development; well worth […]


8. soubresauts - April 21, 2007

Eagle asked: “Is it the left or the right that made it a crime for church pastors in Sweden to preach that homosexuality is immoral, abnormal, wrong?”

I’d be curious to know the details of the Swedish law, but I’d also like to know: Is Ian Paisley going to save Ulster from sodomy?


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