Erna comments on free speech, CBC World News

Charlie Hebdo: Why the West has ‘fallen out of faith’ with free speech

European countries have increasingly tightened restrictions on speech
By Andre Mayer, Jan 15, 2015, CBC News

In the week since Islamic radicals killed 12 people at the offices of French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, there have been solidarity marches, vocal commitments to democratic ideals — and, according to free-speech advocates, a lot of hypocrisy.

A number of influential people, including British novelist Salman Rushdie, himself the target of Muslim extremists once, are warning that a fear of Islamic radicalism is leading many Western countries to waver in their commitment to free expression.

But other prominent opinion leaders, including Pope Francis and a number of British newspaper editors, say that the Charlie Hebdo incident demonstrates there are no absolutes when it comes to free speech, and that enforcing some sort of mutual respect, particularly of religion, is key to the success of multicultural societies.

You might expect such diverging opinions in liberal democracies, but overall, “the West seems to have gradually fallen out of faith with free speech,” says Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University and frequent commentator on issues around freedom of expression.

On Wednesday, French police announced that 54 people had been arrested for such comments since the Paris attacks, including controversial French comedian Dieudonne, who wrote a Facebook post claiming “I feel like Charlie Coulibaly,” a reference to both the “I am Charlie” movement and Amedy Coulibaly, the man who killed four people in a Jewish deli on Jan. 9.

Turley says the measures France has taken in the last week are only the most recent examples of a gradual tightening of free speech in Europe, which has long touted its commitment to free expression.

“Free speech once defined Western civilization,” Turley says, which is why “it’s interesting to see this trend where governments now see free speech as an annoyance or even a public danger.”

Right to speak

Free speech is generally understood to be any communication that doesn’t libel or lead to the physical harm of another individual.

But it’s the latter principle that is causing problems for many Western countries, Turley says, because what is viewed as valid criticism — of a religion, for example — can be viewed as hate speech by others.

Turley believes government should not be in the business of judging that fine line.

Salman Rushdie, who was the subject of a death threat by the supreme leader of Iran after the publication of The Satanic Verses, his 1988 novel about the prophet Muhammed, echoed this sentiment on Wednesday after a speech at the University of Vermont in Burlington.

“Freedom is indivisible,” said Rushdie, citing a quote used by John F. Kennedy and Nelson Mandela.

“You can’t slice it up, otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hedbo,” he said. “But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.”

But as an editorial in London’s Guardian newspaper said, “freedom is, or should always be, tempered by responsibility,” which is the reason most British newspapers chose not to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.

Aftermath of the Holocaust

Turley says that countries such as France and Great Britain have historically been quite committed to free speech but introduced more restrictive laws after the Second World War to deal with lingering anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

But these laws haven’t had the intended effect of stamping out intolerance, he says.

“These laws have made very little difference in terms of the neo-Nazi movement — in fact, they have allowed these movements to thrive on notions of victimization and claims of hypocrisy directed against their governments,” says Turley.

In trying to stop the promotion of hate speech, most Western democracies, including Canada, have increased free-speech restrictions in recent years.

Turley says this trend has had a cascading effect where people can claim offense for seemingly innocuous utterances, such as a French blogger who was fined and forced to change the headline for a negative review of a French café, because the restaurant said it was injurious to its business.
Turley’s view might be seen as a particularly American take on free speech, and he does note that the U.S. has greater freedom of expression than any other Western nation because free speech is enshrined in the Constitution, which means that governments cannot alter it.

“Otherwise I would expect the United States would clearly go down the path of Europe,” says Turley.

Defining hatred

Compared to the U.S., Canada’s free-speech laws are relatively restrictive, says lawyer Cara Zwibel, director of the Fundamental Freedoms program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

She says the way the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms has been crafted, “every right and freedom we have is subject to reasonable limits,” which leaves an opening for governments and human rights commissions to set out what that means.

Section 319 of the Criminal Code sets out penalties from a fine to two years in prison for promoting hatred against an identifiable group.

Zwibel says that the notion of promoting hatred is “very subjective and hard to define, and doesn’t really set a clear standard for what you can and can’t publish.”

But Canadian law can also be seen as a model for how to entrench respect in free speech law, says Erna Paris, an award-winning author who has written extensively on international law.

When it comes to challenges to free expression, she says, Canadian courts typically don’t deliver sweeping edicts, but rather assess them on a case-by-case basis.

She cites a recent Supreme Court decision regarding the ability of Muslim women to testify in court while wearing a veil. The top court ruled that lower courts have the discretion to allow or not allow the practice, depending on the individual case.

As Western societies become increasingly multicultural, “we just have to be prepared to be respectful in terms of minority groups,” says Paris.

“History is just filled with examples, incremental discrimination against minorities that over time becomes something violent, such as we’ve seen in France last week.”

Cautionary tales

Paris is releasing a 20th-anniversary edition of her book From Tolerance to Tyranny: A Cautionary Tale from Fifteenth Century Spain, which looks at how a society in which Christians, Jews and Muslims lived together in peace for hundreds of years deteriorated into the recrimination and bloodshed of the Spanish Inquisition.

She says the lessons from that period still resonate today, because what causes open, pluralist societies to become intolerant is “the exclusion of minorities through various means — the most important of which is propaganda.”

As for Charlie Hebdo, Paris says that in France, there ought to be greater concern around cartoons or editorials that ridicule Islam.

Unlike Christians, who are the majority and “don’t have to question their right to belong in that society,” Paris says Muslims have never been properly integrated in France, and as a result are a marginalized minority.

“People who are in the business of satire are also citizens,” says Paris.

And while she says that hate laws should not be enacted out of a fear of enraging a violence-prone minority, “we should take action based on our responsibility to one another as citizens of multi-ethnic, multicultural societies.”

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