When Speech Becomes a Crime

June 28, 2006

  • Roman Catholic Robert Smith is fired from an appointment on the Washington Metro transit authority board by Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich for the crime of saying that he doesn’t approve of homosexuality.
  • Journalist and author Oriana Fallaci cannot visit her native country of Italy for fear of being thrown in prison because of a lawsuit brought against her by the Italian Muslim Union for the crime of “defaming Islam.”
  • British neo-Nazi David Irving is sentenced to three years in prison in Austria for a 1989 speech in which he committed the crime of Holocaust denial.
  • College Republican Steve Hinkle is found guilty by California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo) for “disruption” for the crime of putting up a flyer advertising a black conservative speaker.
What do the above examples have in common? They are the logical outgrowth of a dangerous trend sweeping the Western world: the criminalization and censorship of speech.Outright censorship and draconian speech codes have long been a staple of Third World authoritarian regimes. But Western democracies and in particular the United States (where the First Amendment is supposed to reign supreme) have always prided themselves on protecting free speech. Yet because of the creeping reach of political correctness, one can now be put in prison, lose a job, be kicked out of school or be otherwise censored simply for uttering an unpopular opinion.

It’s called hate speech. If there ever were a more Orwellian concept, it would be difficult to find. For much like the concept of “thought crimes” in George Orwell’s novel “1984,” hate crimes and hate speech suppose intent on the part of the “perpetrator” that may or may not have any basis in reality. What is often mere criticism or disapproval is labeled “hatred” and thus made worthy of punishment. Such a perspective demands that one think only nice thoughts about others. But when it did it become law that we have to like everyone?

While bigotry is indeed unpleasant, it is not in and of itself a crime. Whether one acts on that bigotry or incites others to violence in accordance is another matter. The old adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me,” comes to mind.

Creating Revisionist Martyrs

Even highly objectionable speech such as Holocaust denial should not be criminalized. Such speech would be better fought on the battlefield of ideas than in the courtroom. The academic frauds and conspiracists pushing Holocaust denial should have their work thoroughly discredited and challenged, not censored.Furthermore, throwing Holocaust deniers in prison merely creates martyrs, which is quite obvious upon perusing any one of the many Web sites that push such views. David Irving, for instance, was turned into a folk hero by his fellow neo-Nazis after being sentenced to three years in prison in Austria for Holocaust denial. While Irving has a long history of promoting Nazism, anti-Semitism, and, yes, Holocaust denial, whether such beliefs constitute criminal acts is questionable.

Author and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt agrees. Lipstadt knows David Irving well, having gone head to head with him in a libel suit that dragged on for years. In the end, Irving lost the suit against Lipstadt for accusing him of Holocaust denial, yet she too is opposed to the sort of speech codes that sent him to prison. As Lipstadt told the BBC: “I am not happy when censorship wins, and I don’t believe in winning battles via censorship. … The way of fighting Holocaust deniers is with history and with truth.”

Far from protecting those on the receiving end, in this case Jews, such restrictions on speech may actually provide succor to worldwide anti-Semitism. It has certainly given anti-Semites within the Muslim world yet another “Jewish conspiracy” to focus on. Instead of accepting responsibility for the intolerance and backwardness demonstrated in the reaction to the manufactured Danish cartoon “controversy,” such Muslims instead point to the hypocrisy of Jews in Western countries who promote free speech in some cases while advocating the imprisonment of Holocaust deniers.

Protecting Islamists From Criticism

Meanwhile, the push to silence what’s been labeled “Islamophobia” is giving rise to further restrictions on speech. In the United States and Canada, groups such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations have instigated numerous lawsuits and brought pressure to bear on writers, radio talk-show hosts and anyone else guilty of criticizing Islam or Islamic culture in any way, shape or form.Talk-show host Michael Graham was fired by Washington radio station WMAL for calling Islam a “terrorist organization” on his show, after CAIR instituted a letter-writing campaign and demanded an apology. CAIR has used a series of libel or defamation suits to go after those who dare bring to light some of the group’s own unsavory ties.

On an international level, the specter of speech codes governing “Islamophobia” has grown exponentially. The United Nations has become the repository for international laws banning the publication of anything deemed insulting to religion and, more specifically, Islam.

Born out of the flap over the Danish cartoons, a series of investigations by the United Nations at the urging of Muslim leaders has led to a slew of resolutions aimed at controlling speech. European and other Western newspapers that dare to publish images of Mohammed in the future or to simply criticize or question aspects of Islamic religion and culture could find themselves on the receiving end of U.N.-sanctioned censorship. Were the United States to adopt such international laws, as some have urged, Americans too could be bound by such restrictions.

Prison for ‘Homophobes’?

Gays are another group included in the growing ranks of the “protected classes,” as columnist John Leo has noted on several occasions. While one can be sued, fired or expelled from school in the United States for expressing disapproval of homosexuality or what’s come to be known as “homophobia,” in Canada one just might be thrown in prison.In 2004, Canadian “genocide and hate crimes” legislation was amended to make it illegal under certain circumstances to “incite hatred” against gays, bisexuals or anyone else based on their sexual orientation. Although the law allows an exemption for religious expression, Christians in particular fear that they will incur the bulk of such offenses, with the citing of biblical passages forbidding homosexuality being the most common “crime.” Indeed, even before the amended law went into effect, job loss, fines, censures and visits by the police were part of the repressive political landscape. One need only turn to the European Union, where clergy find themselves the targets of speech code laws intended to protect gays.

But as in other cases meant to shield one group from offense, the freedom of all is compromised in the process. It’s no coincidence that Canada’s and Europe’s descent into speech-code mania began with restrictions on anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

Even leftists are not immune. University of British Columbia professor Sunera Thobani, a self-described Marxist feminist and multiculturalism activist, was hit with a hate crimes investigation several years ago for a lecture in which she harshly criticized Americans and American foreign policy.

The PC Left

Here in the United States, leftists often decry what they see as censorship emanating from the right, when in fact most of the true silencing of speech has come from within their own ranks. These days, liberal-dominated universities and colleges are one of the major promulgators of speech codes and draconian punishments for hate speech. Beginning in the 1980s, campus speech codes took on a life of their own, leading to countless trumped-up cases based on misunderstandings, perceived insensitivity or the ever-elusive crime of committing offense.All too often, those on the receiving end are conservative or Christian students who are falsely accused of hate speech when they exercise their rights to free speech. It seems that putting forward a political or religious viewpoint on campus that is considered politically incorrect is now grounds for persecution and possible expulsion. Students have found themselves so beleaguered by what often appear to be politically motivated witch hunts that they have felt the need to turn to organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education for legal assistance.

In what may be a good sign, the group has been highly successful in protecting students’ rights to free speech and religious freedom. At least one judge has barred the implementation of such draconian campus speech codes in the interest of protecting students’ First Amendment rights. In a 2003 lawsuit brought by a conservative student at Shippensburg University in Philadelphia and supported by FIRE, federal judge John E. Jones III ruled against enforcement of student code provisions that prohibited racist, sexist and homophobic speech. As he wrote at the time, the speech code may have been a well-intentioned means of achieving “a utopian community,” but it “prohibit[ed] a considerable amount of speech” in the process.

It is indeed the pursuit of a utopian society from which such speech codes emanate. For when George Orwell wrote “1984,” his dystopian vision of a future society governed by totalitarianism, it was the excesses of communism he had in mind. Orwell’s novel foreshadowed the current movement toward thought control. Except that today’s “thought crimes” are called hate speech and hate crimes.

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Schools: Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania California Polytechnic State University Cases: Mohammed Cartoon Controversy: FIRE Response to Intimidation and Newspaper Disputes California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly): Use of Disruption Claim to Suppress Free Speech Shippensburg University: Speech Code Litigation