We previously discussed the prosecution of controversial French comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala for antisemitic jokes and comments. The comedian has now been sent to prison for four months for “public insults,” including “public insult of an anti-Semitic nature” and “contestation of a crime against humanity.” M’Bala’s jokes and comments are deeply offensive to many of us but the prosecution for such comments is a further attack on the core principles of free speech.
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).
The very name of the crime of “public insults” shows how speech controls become insatiable devices for regulating speech. What constitutes a “public insult” is intentionally vague and allows any group to seek to silence those with opposing views.
The most serious charge involves a couple of videos that the comedian insists was a “deepfake” make to look like him. The court rejected the claims and found “The character appearing on the screen, identified by investigators as Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, has the same name, the same appearance, the same voice and the same lexical references as the defendant.”
The point however should not be whether it is the same person but whether people have a right to espouse unpopular and offensive views.
M’Bala was previously sentenced to two years in jail for his speech. He is now friend to free speech since he was accused of sympathizing with the massacre of journalists at Charlie Hebdo. However, that does not mean that free speech advocates can then dismiss his own free speech rights. (Indeed, I have been critical of the French officials denouncing the massacre after previously threatening the same editors with jail). Previously the the European court of human rights in Strasbourg ruled against Dieudonné and declared that the freedom of speech did not protect “racist and antisemitic performances.” The Court has become a leading anti-free speech institution, as we have discussed previously.
While I understand the anger, I remain stuck on the denial of free speech and association. Comedy is often a form of political speech and a vehicle of association. M’Bala has a right to speak his mind against different groups and the use of the quenelle is not unlawful and should not be unlawful as a form of speech. For those of us who find his humor offensive, free speech offers an ample vehicle to respond. Instead his critics are using the power of the state to punish him for speaking his mind, even in the form of jokes.