We have been discussing the crackdown on free speech in the West, particularly in England, France, and Canada. It is a rising concern that seems to be lost on Montana legislators and prosecutors who want to follow the path of speech criminalization. The Montana criminal defamation statute criminalizes speech that exposes religious, racial, and other groups — “to hatred, contempt, ridicule, degradation, or disgrace” — an absurdly broad standard that would make a Sharia judge blush.
I have long been a critic of the criminalization of symbols and gestures, even deeply offensive symbols like Nazi gestures. Europe has plunged into speech regulation and criminalization – showing that such laws create a slippery slope for the criminalization of unpopular speech. This course inevitably leads to increasing — and increasingly absurd — speech crimes. For example, I fail to see how arresting a man for a Hitler ringtone is achieving a meaningful level of deterrence, even if you ignore the free speech implications.
The problem is trying to draw such lines rather than embracing free speech as protecting not just popular but unpopular and even hateful speech. Once you start as a government to criminalize speech, you end up on a slippery slope of censorship. What constitutes hate speech remains a highly subjective matter and we have seen a steady expansion of prohibited terms and words and gestures. We have been following (here and here and and and here and and here and here) the worsening situation in England concerning free speech. As noted in a recent column, free speech appears to be dying in the West with the increasing criminalization of speech under discrimination, hate, and blasphemy laws.
My friend Eugene Volokh has a good piece on the Montana law. It includes a type of group libel claim that has always been problematic in torts. Criminal defamation and hate crime cases have presented the greatest threat to free speech. Indeed, Muslim countries that have long fought for an international blasphemy standard has latched on to the same approach as Montana to criminalize anti-Islamic speech. Unputting aside the questions constitutionality of such laws, Montana seems utterly unconcerned about the implications of this criminalization effort.
Source: Washington Post