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. I wrote earlier about the prosecution of famous actress Brigitte Bardot for saying in 2006 that Muslims were ruining France in a letter to then-Interior Minister (and later President) Nicolas Sarkozy. Bardot, an animal rights activist, has been repeatedly hit with such criminal complaints for criticizing different groups. Now she has again been fined for calling the the inhabitants of La Reunion “savages” for their continued sacrificing of animals in religious rituals.
Bardot, 87, was fined 20,000 euros ($23,000) by a court on France’s Indian Ocean island of La Reunion over a 2019 letter in which she condemned the continued sacrificing of goats by the island’s Hindu Tamil population, which she described as “degenerate savages.” She declared that “the natives have kept their savage genes” and referred the “cannibalism of past centuries.” She described the population as “a degenerate population still soaked in barbarous ancestral traditions.”
Her spokesman Bruno Jacquelin was also fined for sending the statement to several media outlets at her request.
France’s then overseas territories minister Annick Girardin called for action after writing her “that racism is not an opinion, it’s an offense.”
I certainly understand the great offense taken from these statements. Despite long favoring animal rights, I view the comments as worthy of public condemnation. However, as will come as little surprise to many on this blog, I view such statements as free speech that should be protected in every country.
France has been a leader in the rollback on free speech in the West with ever widening laws curtailing free speech. These laws criminalize speech under vague standards referring to “inciting” or “intimidating” others based on race or religion. For example, fashion designer John Galliano has been found guilty in a French court on charges of making anti-Semitic comments against at least three people in a Paris bar. At his sentencing, Judge Anne Marie Sauteraud read out a list of the bad words used by Galliano to Geraldine Bloch and Philippe Virgitti. “He said ‘dirty whore’ at least a thousand times,” she explained out loud.
In another case, the father of French conservative presidential candidate Marine Le Pen was fined because he had called people from the Roma minority “smelly.” A French mother was prosecuted because her son went to school with a shirt reading “I am a bomb.”
Recently, a French teenager was charged for criticizing Islam as a “religion of hate.”
The result of such poorly defined laws in European countries is predictable. A recent poll found only 18 percent of Germans feel they can speak freely in public. More than 31 percent did not even feel free to express themselves in private among their friends. Just 17 percent of Germans felt free to express themselves on the internet, and 35 percent said free speech is confined to small private circles. That is called a chilling effect, and it should be feared.
The solution to bad speech is better speech. In that sense, free speech is its own disinfectant. What has never worked is censorship. Germany has long outlawed symbols of Nazism but the Neo-Nazi movement continues to grow in that country. Censorship and the criminalization of speech invites people to spend more time trying to silence opposing views than answering them in a free and open society.