This weekend I wrote a column for the Washington Post on the crackdown of free speech in France. The column suggested that, if the French really wanted to honor the dead at Charlie Hebdo, they would rescind the laws used to hound them and threaten them with criminal prosecution for years. (Indeed, at least one surviving journalist expressed contempt for those who now support free speech but remained silent in the face of past efforts to shut down the magazine). Now, however, news reports indicate that the French government is doubling down on criminalizing speech in the name of free speech after the massacre. France has reportedly made dozens of arrests of people who glorify terrorism and engage in hateful or antiSemitic speech.
Prosecutors have gone out of their way to make it known that they are prosecuting people for speech — a remarkably ironic twist since the victims were prosecuted for the very same thing and died defending free speech against such private or governmental speech codes. Some 54 people have been arrested since the Paris terror attacks. The French justice department has encouraged more arrests for speech violations.
Notably, one of those detained was mentioned in my column, the comedian Dieudonne, who has been prosecuted for anti-Semitic jokes. For earlier posts and columns on Dieudonne, click here and here and here. 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 and here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. We have seen comedians targets with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here).
The crackdown in France shows that this is really not about free speech despite the rally in Paris. The West seems to be falling out of faith with free speech, which is now something to be prosecuted rather than protected. Of course, the prosecutions will do little to change minds and will only make the West appear hypocritical and arbitrary. Notably, the arrests this week include four minors. The government is also ramping greater surveillance and searches. So, to recap, the French government just rallied millions for liberty this weekend and then used the attacks to further deny free speech and privacy rights.
In the case of Dieudonne, he ran afoul of the laws by posing a Facebook statement that he felt like “Charlie Coulibaly” — merging the names of Charlie Hebdo and Amedy Coulibaly, the gunman who seized a kosher market and killed four hostages. It was later taken down. He later wrote to the Interior Minister that “Whenever I speak, you do not try to understand what I’m trying to say, you do not want to listen to me. You are looking for a pretext to forbid me. You consider me like Amedy Coulibaly when I am not any different from Charlie.”