I have written for years on the crackdown on free speech in France, Germany, and England though hate speech laws and speech regulations. As many on this blog know, I am unabashedly against limits on free speech and have opposed most public and private forms of censorship for decades. This often means that, like everyone in the free speech community, I find myself opposing actions against some of the most obnoxious, juvenile, or hateful people in our society. That is the case with this story. Three British teenagers have been arrested for a Snapchat video mocking the death of George Floyd. It was a deeply offensive and stupid act, but the question remains whether society is criminalizing a wider and wider scope of speech.
The teenagers posted the mocking Snapchat video the horrific death of Floyd, who had a knee pressed on his neck as he begged to breathe. It is a scene that still horrifies most of us. Yet, these three idiots took to Snapchat to make fun of the tragedy.
They have received death threats over the posting and outrage grew as the pictures were shared on social media.
We recently discussed how jokes are increasingly viewed as hate speech on campuses. We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, particularly in Europe (here and here and here and here and here and here and here ,and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). We have seen comedians targeted with such court orders under this expanding and worrisome trend. (here and here and here).
This obviously is neither funny nor even comedic satire. It is horrible. However, the solution to such bad speech is more speech. We denounce the students for their lack of empathy or humanity in mocking such a tragedy. Yet, England has been plunging deeper and deeper into speech controls (here and here and here and here and here and, here and here and here and here and here).
Arresting stupid teenagers for tasteless Shapchat parodies creates a chilling effect for all forms of speech. The question is what crossed the line between from the merely tasteless to the outright criminal. It is a highly subjective standard on what jokes trigger the criminal code. As I previously discussed, France bars incitement to racial discrimination, hatred, or violence on basis of race, origin, ethic group, religion or national identity. That includes such statements in private communications. In the United Kingdom, you can be arrested for language deemed “threatening, abusive, insulting” or “likely to cause harassment, alarm, or distress.”
The impact of these laws was evident in a recent poll of German citizens. Only 18% of Germans feel free to express their opinions in public. 59% of Germans did not even feel free expressing themselves in private among friends. And just 17% felt free to express themselves on the Internet.
That is what a “chilling effect” means. It silences large numbers of people who fear that they could be the next subject of a criminal charge. I will repeat again the words of Louis Brandeis in his concurring opinion in Whitney v. California (1927) when he declared “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”