The First Amendment to the United States Constitution establishes the right of free speech. Though there may be instances when speech cannot be truly uninhibited because of possible consequences, e.g. yelling “fire” in a crowded theater, the right to speak freely has been enshrined in American law and custom. Lately, however, free speech has come under attack even in the U.S. by groups claiming that certain words and expressions can be an incitement to violence or can induce discomfort or fear. This interpretation of free speech as a privilege, rather than a right, is more common worldwide than not.
Many countries with constitutions, and several without, have adopted the principle of freedom of speech, but just how free one actually is varies from place to place. In practice, even many nations where speech is notionally protected nevertheless have laws that define lines that should not be crossed. For example, Turkey’s constitution promises free speech, but there is also a law that makes criticizing the head of state a criminal act, an exception that is currently being strictly enforced under President Erdogan. In Western Europe a number of countries have legislation defining “hate crimes,” laws intended to establish a level of civility among the various constituencies that make up the citizenry. Generally, they define as illegal any attempt to criticize or ridicule someone based on race or religion. In France and Germany it is, for example, illegal to deny that the Holocaust occurred.
Most jurisdictions in Europe consider speech that is either “blasphemy” or “racist” in nature to be illegal, and a court ruling in Brussels suggests that supranational institutions like the European Union are likewise sensitive to what some might regard as free speech that is a bit too free. The European Court of Justice, the EU’s top tribunal, ruled that the European Union was justified in firing a British economist back in 1995 for writing a book that condemned European currency integration. According to the court, the book did damage to the EU’s “image and reputation” and was “aggressive, derogatory and insulting.” It was conceded that the economist, Bernard Connolly, otherwise performed his work satisfactorily and that the book was written and published on his own time and at his own expense. The court nonetheless upheld his dismissal.
That ruling was issued in 2001, but it came back into play in the British media this year as part of the Brexit campaign, as an example demonstrating that under current rules the EU cannot even be criticized without consequences. Connolly, who argued in his book that currency union was a threat to democracy, certainly might be credited with being more correct now than he appeared to be in 1995, given recent events in Greece and the EU’s other underperforming economies. After the 2001 judgment, Connolly referred to the operation of the European Court of Justice as having affirmed the concept of “seditious libel,” a long-discredited principle of jurisprudence maintaining that any attempt to criticize in writing the sovereign authority should be considered equivalent to seeking to overthrow the government itself.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.