France,  Freedom of Expression

In France, free expression up to a point?

Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri raises a point which has also discomfited me.

Is it hypocritical to stand in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo and its right to be (in the opinions of some) blasphemous and offensive while remaining silent about the current French crackdown on “hate speech”?

Controversial French comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has been detained by police for a Facebook comment appearing to back Paris gunman Amedy Coulibaly.

His is one of dozens of cases opened by authorities in a crackdown on condoning or threatening terrorism.

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said words of hatred and contempt had to be fought with the “utmost vigour”.

The justice ministry said earlier that 54 cases had been opened since the murders of 17 people in Paris last week. Of those, 37 cases involved condoning terrorism and 12 were for threatening to carry out terrorist acts.

• A man of 22 was jailed on Tuesday for a year for posting a video mocking one of the three murdered policemen

• A drunk driver was given four years in prison after making threats against the police who arrested him

• Three men in their twenties were jailed in Toulouse for condoning terrorism

• A man of 20 was jailed in Orleans for shouting “long live the Kalash[(nikov]” at police in a shopping centre
Hours after 3.7 million people took part in rallies across France on Sunday, with the biggest in the centre of Paris, Dieudonne said on his Facebook page that the “historic” march had been as magical as the Big Bang that had created the universe.

“I’m finally going home,” he wrote. “Know that this evening, as far as I’m concerned, I’m feeling like Charlie Coulibaly [French: je me sens Charlie Coulibaly].”

He combined the “Je suis Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) slogan adopted across the world in support of the 17 victims of the Paris attacks with the name of one of the three Paris gunmen, before deleting the remark a short time later.

Coulibaly killed a policewoman near a Jewish school last Thursday before going on to hold up a kosher supermarket the following day when he murdered four Jewish hostages.

Now obviously anyone making a credible threat of violence deserves to be arrested. But is simply spouting off in sympathy with terrorists in the most obnoxious ways a matter for prosecution?

As is often repeated, free expression is not just for people and ideas of which you approve. If it is to mean anything, it also includes tolerance of speech which sickens and disgusts you.

Which is not to say that that such speech should simply be ignored. As Petri writes:

[T]here’s a difference between what is right to say and what you should have the right to say. The way to deal with this kind of hateful speech is not to ban it; it’s to fight it with more speech. Mock it, in its turn. Don’t give it the power of saying that it is something more than speech, something that deserves to be punished like an action. It’s not. And to say “we can’t fight this in words; these words are so much more awful than other words that they must be taboo” gives these words undue power. Don’t cut these words and ideas off from the air and light of arguments that could poke holes in them. They don’t deserve this status.

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