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 here). Much of this trend is tied to the expansion of hate speech and non-discrimination laws. We have seen comedians targeted with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here). The insatiable appetite for speech criminalization and regulation was apparent this week. The government continues to struggle to deal with the “yellow vest” protests in Paris, but it has now opened a criminal investigation into protesters who yelled that police should commit suicide. Despite being treated as clearly protected political speech in the United States, such protest chants will be charged as crimes in France where free speech is being eradicated under a variety of speech codes and criminal provisions.
The government has not been able to shutdown the protests for 23 weekends. So now it will use its speech crimes to arrest protesters. The national police force has seen an increase in suicide this year with 28 officers taking their lives — well ahead of the rate in 2018 of 35 for the entire year.
Interior Minister Christophe Castaner denounced the taunts and we all certainly agree on that point. It is a reprehensible and insensitive chant to use for the protests. However, the ministry wants to go further and use a law that criminalizes any speech that brings “contempt of a person carrying out public authority at a meeting.” It is a ridiculous law designed to shield government officials from criticism under an ambiguous and chilling standard. There is no practical difference between France arresting people for insulting police and the Russian internal police arresting Putin critics or China arresting environmental protesters.
Rather, France is quickly becoming one of the most speech-intolerant countries in the world. We do not need free speech to protect popular speech. It is there for the unpopular views of minority viewpoints. We tolerate such speech to avoid the very slippery slope that France is careening down in these endless prosecutions of speech.