I think, therefore I harm
Voltaire, a French writer (1694 – 1778), once said: I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it. This one sentence is engraved in me, it is part of who I am.
Freedom of speech is the right to communicate ideas and opinions through speech, print or other media, to people willing to listen. Freedom of speech is acknowledged as a fundamental right by many nations. It is part of the England’s Bill of Rights of 1689, and a major clause of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen adopted during the French Revolution in 1789. It is an integral part of the Constitution of the United States‘s First Amendment signed in 1791 and one of the basic principles of the Constitution of Canada in 1867.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948, states in article 19 that:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
However, freedom of speech was never a universal, unlimited right. In most jurisdictions, freedom of speech is limited by other laws, values or rights. In particular, freedom of speech is usually limited when it could cause harm, or even just prejudice. For instance, it is universally forbidden to scream “Fire!” in a crowded theater, as the ensuing panic could cause people to get hurt.
Dieudonné, who’s name literally means given by God, is a controversial French actor and comedian, relatively well known in other French speaking European countries and in Québec, where he performs stand-up comedy. He is known in France for his controversial political views, and generally for his antisemitic humor. Antisemitism is prejudice, discrimination or hate against Jews for no reason other than them being Jew. Though Jew isn’t a race per se, antisemitism is usually perceived as a form of racism.
A series of shows which Dieudonné performed from 2000 to 2008, mostly understood as attacks on people that do not share his own positions, were dotted with antisemitic comments. From 2006 to 2010, Dieudonné accumulated nearly €40,000 in fines through different court sanctions in France alone, and $75,000 in a single case in Montréal. All of which were the results of different antisemitic or defamatory statements made publicly toward public personalities. To this day, it is said that he paid none of these fines.
The coup de grâce came last week, though, when he was banned from all the scenes where his show was scheduled in France. Dieudonné released a video just a few weeks ago, a kind of teaser for his show, in which he attacks bankers and slavers, so as not to say Jews. On Monday, January 6th, France’s interior minister released a memo stating that it was legal to ban the show, given that antisemitism is specifically prohibited by law in the country, and that the content of the show was known from the teaser video. Within hours, Bordeaux banned Dieudonné’s show, and all the other cities where the show was scheduled announced the ban as well. The news circulated internationally, and some raised the concern that Dieudonné’s freedom of speech had been ignored.
Yes, I will fight for freedom of speech. It doesn’t matter if I agree with your views, you have the right to say it, as long as I am not forced to acknowledge or even listen. Say what you have to say, and say it out loud. But hate was never part of free speech. Your view of others being inferior because they are merely different cannot reach the tip of your lips. Freedom of speech comes with responsibilities, and those are to not cause harm or prejudice. I will respect your right to free speech as long as you will respect others’ rights.
Ironically, Dieudonné’s 2009 show was titled Liberté d’expression (freedom of expression). It does not sound like he knew what he was talking about.