By Peter Scheer
An inebriated John Galliano, sitting in a Paris bar, unleashes an anti-semitic rant (“I love Hitler”) that is captured on a cellphone camera and posted on the internet. Within days the Dior designer is not only fired from his job, but is given a trial date to face criminal charges for his offensive remarks.
In the same week, the U.S. Supreme Court extends First Amendment protection to the homophobic proclamations of a fringe religious group whose founder and members, picketing near a funeral for an American soldier killed in Iraq, hold signs stating, among other things, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers,” “God hates fags” and “You’re Going to Hell.” The Court, in Snyder v. Phelps, bars a suit against the religious group for damages because the demonstrators’ message, although causing “emotional distress” to the dead soldier’s family, dealt with “matters of public concern.”
The contrast between these cases reflects fundamentally different views about the role of free speech in a democracy. France, hardly an intolerant or autocratic country, imposes criminal fines for racial epithets, Holocaust-denial, anti-immigrant advocacy and other forms of “hate speech.” And the French are not alone. To varying degrees, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada–liberal democracies, all–enforce similar laws banning hate speech.
The United States is an outlier when it comes to freedom of expression. Although we share other countries’ repugnance for hate speech, particularly the race- and religion-baiting variety, the First Amendment reflects a uniquely strong aversion to government censorship of any kind. As interpreted in Supreme Court decisions going back nearly a century, the First Amendment forbids government suppression of ideas, no matter how vile, deranged or offensive—as long as the speaker doesn’t cross the line separating speech and illegal action (or succeed in inciting others to engage in violent crimes). Continue reading