Off Topic

I think, therefore I harm

Limits of Freedom of Speech [My Two Cents]

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.


6 comments on “Limits of Freedom of Speech [My Two Cents]

  1. sledpress
    January 16, 2014

    The problem here is whether it is possible to create a reliable definition of “hate speech” that is not so slippery as to expand out of control. If someone forthrightly says that certain people should be killed, raped or otherwise injured — if the speaker is inciting and exhorting to violence — we have a clear case of fire in a theater, that is, the use of speech to cause real world harm. If the speech is merely bigoted or abusive however — “Jews are greedy, gays want to recruit your children” — the remedy is more and saner speech, not legal action, at least in my opinion. And I wouldn’t want to face legal charges for something I said in a moment of anger or for voicing a defensible opinion about a class or group, without advocating that said group be singled out for harm. (For example, I’ve been called a bigot for expressing exasperation with the Hispanic people in my area, who almost never get their pets fixed, whether because the idea upsets them or they don’t think it’s worth the money I don’t know — but it’s the bald truth and it’s a problem with the culture, and if someone doesn’t say it and address it, it’s the animals who suffer.)

    Here in the States we have the Westboro Baptist Church under the leadership of the “Reverend” Fred Phelps who for years and years have been picketing funerals, initially of people who died of AIDS with signs reading GOD HATES FAGS and other sweet sentiments. There are people who want them arrested but the most beautiful and elegant solution has been the presence of people dressed in gigantic angel costumes who block them from view. Likewise Rush Limbaugh blackguards everyone except rich old white Republican males, it seems; the fun has come from watching advertisers pull out of his program one by one, often explaining their action by pointing out in public that he is horrible.

    Hardest for me are anti abortion protesters who gather at women’s clinics and shout “baby killer” and other sweet phrases at the patients. In my gut I want them all swept away (actually I would like to do something more graphically violent to them than that). But I also want to be able to say exactly what I think about them in public, and they would be bound to hide behind their religious group identity and start accusing their opponents of hate speech, and on and on.

    I don’t know this Dieudonne’s act of course. If he libels individuals he deserves his fines and should be jailed if he doesn’t pay them. I have to think thought that banning his show will just give his fans the excuse to act injured and oppressed. Staying away in droves, or protesting at the venue, would make more sense to me.

    • Tom Duhamel
      January 16, 2014

      No, we cannot make a clear rule as to what constitute “hate speech” or otherwise doesn’t fit into “free speech”. Some of the nations with a clear “freedom of speech” rule have something along the lines of “as long as it doesn’t step on other rights”, and that’s pretty much my own interpretation (as I wrote above).

      “…expressing exasperation with the Hispanic people in my area, who almost never get their pets fixed…” This example is good to me. I didn’t feel any prejudice here. You recognize a cultural problem, you don’t attack them merely for being Hispanic. A key word here was “almost”, which sounds like you recognize that all individuals of that group aren’t the same. If you were to write or speak about it, in a calm tone, I don’t see how it could go wrong.

      The case of Fred Phelps, as you describe it, is more laughable than anything else. Is he among those that believe that God brought AIDS to the gay people? Was he even checking if these dead people were actually gay? “God hates fags” is somewhat borderline to me. Well, it’s free speech, indeed, but is it good? I doubt it. How it is received may be very different depending of the particular place. Are there many gays there? What is the perception of people regarding homosexuality in that place? What is accepted as free speech varies a lot depending of cultural values of people in different places. He that guy did that in Montréal, he would be beaten down, because not only homosexuality is well accepted here (there will always be exceptions, of course), but gay people are actively fighting for their rights.

      How people would react to the cancellation of the show was a hard point in the debate that led to the decision. Since the decision was announced literally 2 hours before the show, there were already a lot of people in front of the theater, and a manifestation had begun. To his merit, Dieudonné did well there. He sent a message on his Twitter account asking his fans to go home. Nothing newsworthy happened that day. On the other hand, my understanding is that the authorities didn’t actually took the decision to cancel merely based on the content of the show. Sure, the content was illegal according to French laws, but as it was reported it seems they were very concerned by the manifestation that was announced from people who wanted the show to be cancelled.

      If Dieudonné had planned a the show here in Québec, nobody would had cared. We are very liberal, and people most usually are for free speech, no matter what the topic is or if they agree with it. The show wouldn’t be cancelled, but it would most likely go unnoticed. Nobody would go. Yes, you can say the genocide didn’t happen, but I don’t have to listen to you.

      In Canada, you can walk in front of the Parliament and scream your heart out as to how bad our Prime Minister is. The police will come and… protect you. But a teen is currently in jail for posting a death treat toward the PM as a YouTube comment. We have free speech, but we have limits. I think the limit here is fair.

  2. heretherebespiders
    January 21, 2014

    I think he should have been allowed to have his show. If the venue was happy enough to have him, it is their choice to let him say what he is likely to say. I wouldn’t go see him, but he’s apparently got a fan base. Is he exhorting them to violence? I somehow doubt that. And agreed as above – as long as it isn’t against a specific person, I can’t see that he violates the ‘fire’ rule.

    • Tom Duhamel
      January 21, 2014

      Somehow, I must agree with your opinion. I still support my opinion that his show is not free speech, in my own definition. Not because I don’t agree with what he says, but I do consider it being hate speech, which I do not support. But yeah, I won’t see his show and I shouldn’t mind if others may like it.

      No, I don’t think he promotes violence.

      Maybe I didn’t pick the best example. That subject was already on my list of topics to write about. It just happened that this event occurred, which I thought was a nice example.

  3. suth2
    January 28, 2014

    “Hate was never part of free speech.” I like your line.

    • Tom Duhamel
      January 28, 2014

      Thanks! English being a second language, I like being told I’m not always a total failure 🙂

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This entry was posted on January 16, 2014 by in My Two Cents, Society and tagged , , , , , .
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