Monday, March 26, 2007

Free Speech in Europe and the US

I have been thinking of writing a post about the differences in free speech in Europe and the US ever since I saw Skeptico's post on the French case.

The reason why I wanted to do that, is that I frequently come across Americans making statements about European free speech cases which clearly show that they don't realize the differences.

Skeptico's post was an example of this, though not a very bad one. Skeptico said that it was not a free speech victory, though it clearly was, since it narrowed down the limits on free speech in France.
A much better example is this completely ignorant statement from Ed Brayton in a post discussing the same case.

Well I guess that's a victory, but why would it matter if he did have the intent of insulting the Muslim community? Insulting a person is not a crime, nor is insulting a group of people, nor should it be.

Why is it completely ignorant? Well, it's in a post discussing a verdict of a trial where the defendent was found not guilty of "publicly abusing a group of people because of their religion". In other words, yes insulting someone is a crime in France, where this case took place, if certain criterias are met.

You can say that insulting someone shouldn't be a crime, and I think most readers would agree with you, but claiming it isn't a crime when debating a case where the very statute that makes it a crime is being applied, is just plain stupid.
Just because it's not a crime in the US doesn't mean it isn't a crime elsewhere (likewise, just because it's a crime in the US, doesn't make it such elsewhere).

Update: Ed Brayton has clearified the text that I quoted in the comments to his post, and said "[W]hat I meant when I said it's not a crime, that it is not legitimately called a crime." Well, that does make the statement much less ignorant, though it can be debated what made Ed the decider of what is legitimately a crime.

Now, to the differences in free speech in the US and Europe. Well, in Denmark we say that we have "free speech under responsibility", which means that you can say what you want, but you have to take the responsibility for it (including the legal responsibility). It's much the same in the rest of Europe.

There are a number of limits to free speech in European countries. Probably the most famous is Germany's ban on holocaust-denial, but it's hardly the only one. Many European countries still have blasphemy laws on the books, though most don't enforce them, have anti-hate speech/-racism laws, and other limits.

Does this mean that European are totalitarian? No, it means that the focus of European laws are different from the focus of US laws.

I've been trying to think of how to explain the philosophical differences between the two types of free speech, and I think it can be defined as such:
The US focuses on protecting the individuals' rights, while Europe focuses on protecting the individuals.

In other words, if the rights of the individuals can potentially harm other indivuals, European law tend to err on the side of safety, while the US law err on the side of protecting the rights until harm is proven. This is of course an oversimplification1, but I hope it makes it a little more clear.

On the other hand, many Europeans see US limits on free speech as horrifying. For example, the many cases of people getting arrested for wearing specific t-shirts, though often dressed up as anti-trespassing arrests, are considered a violation of the most basic rights of expression by many (including myself).

1It's an oversimplification, because the basic concept of European law is that what the law does not forbid is allowed to the private person, and what the law does not allow, is forbidden to the state.
In other words, unless there is a law that explictly forbids something to individuals, it's allowed, and unless there is a law that explictly allows the state to do something, it's forbidden.



Anonymous Dapper said...

I wouldn't hold your breath waiting for Ed to admit his phrasing was less than perfect. On his blog, he's the Decider™.

March 26, 2007 7:10 PM  

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