Inside the First Amendment
By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar
The latest death knell for freedom of speech comes not from North Korea or Iran, but from that bastion of democratic freedom known as the United Kingdom.
Earlier this month, British authorities deported Dutch lawmaker Geert Wilders, declaring him a danger to “public security.”
Wilders’ offense is that he offends. He stirs outrage by comparing the Quran to Mein Kampf — and disseminating his film depicting Islam as a terrorist religion. Although invited to the U.K. by a member of the House of Lords to screen his screed, Wilders is apparently too hot for Britain to handle. Meanwhile back home in Amsterdam, the Court of Appeals has decided to prosecute Wilders for “hate speech.”
Like many assaults on free speech, the actions of the British government and Dutch courts get a pass in many quarters because Geert Wilders is such an unsavory target. Many Europeans find his message crude and dangerous — and view him as little more than an attention-seeking bigot.
British officials defend the deportation of Wilders by appealing to public safety. And given the violent protests after the Danish cartoon controversy several years ago, they have reason to worry. But the answer is to protect the speaker and prosecute the lawbreakers — not to allow a heckler’s veto.
If the censorship of Wilders was an isolated incident, then I might be less alarmed. But it comes at a time when freedom of speech is losing ground in nations across the globe, most disturbingly in the democracies of Europe.
Last fall, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling on all countries to pass laws prohibiting “defamation of religion.” Introduced by Muslim states with support from nations like Venezuela and Belarus, the statement passed 85-50 with 42 cowardly abstentions.
The irony, of course, is that the chief sponsors of the U.N. resolution are the very governments with anti-blasphemy laws that protect only the majority faith and ban all religious dissent. Hillel Neuer of UN Watch, an independent human rights group, charges that the resolution legitimizes “the criminalization of free speech in countries like Sudan, Egypt, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia.”
The U.N. action and efforts within European nations to prohibit “hate speech” are Orwellian signs that human rights are being redefined to permit violations of human rights. As Neuer points out, “human rights were designed to protect individuals — to guarantee every person free speech and free exercise of religion — but most certainly not to shield any set of beliefs, religion included.”
Laws prohibiting defamation of religion will do nothing to uphold Islam or protect Muslims. On the contrary, such efforts will only empower radicals and endanger moderate Muslims who speak out within Muslim states and within Europe’s Muslim communities. Consider, to cite one of many examples, the two men in Afghanistan who recently “defamed Islam” by publishing a modified version of the Quran — and now face 20 years in prison. Meanwhile in Germany, Spain and other European countries, Muslim critics of radical Islam routinely suffer death threats and intimidation from extremists.
Of course, verbal attacks on Islam and Muslims by people like Geert Wilders do have a negative impact on the lives of European Muslims by helping to create a climate of fear and intolerance. But attempts to put a lid on free speech make the problem worse, deepening anger and resentment toward Muslims.
The solution is more freedom, not less: Freedom to proclaim the truth as you know it, freedom to confront differences openly, and freedom to counter the voices of hate. Those who don’t like the speech of Geert Wilders (and count me in that number), should drown him out with speech we do like — and not use the engine of government to shut him up.
Governments in Europe or anywhere else are deluded if they hope to appease radical Islamists and avoid violence by banning speech. Extremists within Islam — or within any religion — will not be mollified by “hate speech” laws. They will not stop until they silence all dissent.
History teaches that when people surrender their freedom to keep the peace, they end by losing both.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].