Saturday, January 31, 2015

Freedom of Speech in France

I was stunned to learn that apparently freedom of speech in France does not extend to “Holocaust denial”. In other words, it is a crime in that country to deny the Holocaust. I believe this is a huge mistake.

The recent mass murders of the Charlie Hebdo staff were done by two muslim terrorists, who were evidently enraged to violence by cartoons of the prophet Mohammed published by that organization. The French government, quite rightly, does not legally forbid the publication of such cartoons that might be offensive to certain religious or ethnic groups, the justification being freedom of speech. Citizens do not have the legal right to not be offended by words (spoken or on paper) against the group they happen to belong to. But by making Holocaust denial, or any particular general topic, off limits, the free speech argument is rendered hypocritical.

In a video a French government official says that the reason for this limit on free speech is that scholars the world over are all agreed that the Holocaust is a historical fact. Well, that may be true---but it is irrelevant. The justification for free speech is not that one should be allowed to say (or write) anything at all as long as it is true. One should be allowed, for example, to say that the earth is flat, or even that some particular ethnic group has this or that negative characteristic (though that would be unkind, and I would not like someone to say or write such things).

Now, there are instances where speech is quite properly limited. One should not be free to engage in personal, libelous attacks on individuals, nor should one, in a mob frenzy context, be allowed to clamor for killing some group of people (e.g., the police). A common example of disallowed “speech” is falsely shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Clearly, the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo did not involve any of these disallowed forms of speech. 

Legality aside, I would say that the cartoons were perhaps unkind, and predictably hurtful to some groups; but that does not constitute being guilty of any crime against muslims, and certainly is not deserving the death penalty. Any persons who respond to an offensive cartoon or words by violence and murder, have committed a capital crime, and should be prosecuted and punished accordingly, with no leniency to account for their having being offended. One should not have the right to not be offended.

I suspect that the proscription of Holocaust denial by the French is an attempt to avoid offending the Jewish citizens that had direct family experience with the Holocaust. While I do not wish to encourage Holocaust denial, and I would avoid any hurtful words to any people of the world, making the denial a crime undermines, and renders hypocritical, the position that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were protected by the rights of free speech.