We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in France (here and here and here and here and here and here) and England ( here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. Often these cases involve vile or obnoxious speech, but such speech is the test of our values. We do not need laws to protect popular speech. One case in point is French comedian Dieudonne M’Bala M’Bala, who likes to target Jews in his popular shows. He has already been hit with fines approaching $100,000 for his jokes and there is no a move to have been prosecuted criminally. For jokes. Bad even sick jokes to be sure. But jokes.
Dieudonne has been particularly called out for his use of a provocative arm gesture called the “quenelle,” described as an upside-down Nazi salute as well as far right references (as shown by a different man in this picture) He has also joked about gas chambers in his recent jab at Jewish radio presenter Patrick Cohen. Dieudonne remarked that “[w]hen I hear Patrick Cohen speak, I tell myself, you know, the gas chambers… A shame.” He has also expressed admiration for Iran’s leader and described Holocaust commemorations as “memorial pornography.” (His admiration for Iran is a bit curious since it is one of the least free nations for comedians and writers).
Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoe has called for him to be banned and calls his shows as committing the same crime as someone who “defends crimes against humanity.” He is not the first comedian or entertainer to be prosecuted in the West.
Clothilde Chapuis, of the French-based International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Licra), called for action against the comedian on the grounds that “[t]here has been a type of impunity” as regards the offensive gesture, “but the impunity is over.” That type of statement obviously sends a chill through civil libertarians. Free speech should always be enjoyed “with impunity” even speech that we find objectionable or disgusting.
Dieudonne has already been hit by fines of 65,000 euros ($88,500) but continues to defy his critics. He is the French-born son of a Cameroonian father and a white mother. he became nationally famous in comedy routines with his childhood friend, Jewish comedian Elie Semoun. However, Semoun later accused him of “living in a world of hatred”.
I find Dieudonne’s jokes deeply disturbing and offensive. However, France appears to be on a slippery slope of censorship as it cracks down on people deemed offensive by the majority. Comedy has long been a critical component of political speech. The way to combat bad speech is with good speech not censorship.