France’s approach to freedom of speech inconsistent, confusing

Free speech for me, but not for thee?


The arrest of a French comedian on charges stemming from posts on his Facebook page has prompted criticism of double standards on free speech. The critics have a valid point.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attack and its “I am Charlie” vigil slogan, Dieudonne M’bala M’bala posted that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly,” referring to the name a gunmen who attacked a Jewish grocery store. Police arrested Dieudonne for “glorifying terrorism.”

Coulibaly killed a policewoman and four customers at a kosher shop last week, two days after the attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper.

Dieudonne is known for anti-semitic speech, and last year he openly mocked the killing a American journalist James Foley at the hands of Islamic State.

Many critics have pointed out the seeming double standard. The French appear to be saying that mocking the Muslim Prophet should be protected speech, but mocking other people or issues should lead to arrest. American comedian Jon Stewart pointed out the contradiction of arresting someone for their speech after hosting a massive free speech rally.

The arrest points to France’s troubled history with the protection of free speech. For instance, in 2013 police arrested a protestor on charges of “insulting” the French president. The European Court of Human Rights overturned the conviction as a violation of speaker’s human right to free expression. Last year, Paris banned pro-Palestinian protests on public order grounds.

But, critics shouldn’t lump France’s approach to free speech with other “Western” countries.

In the United States, Dieudonne’s comments would have never landed him in jail. A 1969 Supreme Court ruling, Brandenburg v. Ohio, protects inflammatory, racist and hateful speech. The high court drew the line at incitement for “imminent lawless action.” The ruling aligned with a landmark decision in which the court reasoned that only a generous tolerance for all speech could ensure that debates were “uninhibited, robust and wide-open.”

So, U.S. speakers can say whatever they want on their Facebook page as long as they’re not making any specific threats of violence. Dieudonne’s speech falls well short of the Brandenburg standard.

Similarly, laws against insulting public officials have been ruled unconstitutional and any regulation of protests must be “content-neutral.”

Criticize France for their double-standards but note that other countries are more careful about protecting all expression, even that speech which we may feel is offensive.

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