French Hate Speech Laws Are Less Simplistic Than You Think

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Hate speech restrictions have come under fire in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo slayings. Jacob Sullum writes that France has endorsed “the illiberal idea that people have a right not to be offended.” Nina Shea fulminates that Europe as a whole is “shutting down discussion and examination of Islam with hate-speech bans.” At the heart of these (incorrect) assertions is the basic principle articulated by David Brooks that, “healthy societies…don’t suppress speech.”


In truth, all liberal democracies forbid some speech. Even in the First Amendment-oriented United States, CIA employees don’t have the right to divulge state secrets in the public square. False statements of fact that harm an individual or a business can be punished under federal and state laws. And stoking anger in a crowd and then pointing them at a passerby is illegal incitement if it leads violence, and may incur an extra penalty under existing hate crimes provisions if there is a racist element to the speech.


France’s speech-restrictive provisions go further than American ones. Within a week of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, more than 35 people were detained for statements forbidding “apology” of terrorism. (There were an additional 17 people arrested under provisions against “verbal threats of terrorist acts.”) Examples include a man who said to police officers, “There should be more Kouachis. I hope you’ll be the next ones…You are a godsend for the terrorists.” Most infamously, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the controversial performer who has in the past been convicted for anti-Semitic hate speech, was arrested for a Facebook post in which he said he felt like Charlie Coulibaly. One can debate whether scooping up these people was consistent with the principles espoused by Charlie Hebdo supporters (or even whether it was politically wise), but these statements are not what Americans traditionally think of as hate speech.


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