Late last year in October, and again this February, fashion designer John Galliano shocked people when he was caught letting loose racist and anti-Semitic tirades in a Paris café.
In the United States, which has some of the most liberal free speech policies in the world, what Galliano did would likely be protected speech. However, in France, it is actually a criminal offense to make public insults based on a person’s origin, religious affiliation, race, or ethnicity. These charges carry a maximum sentence of six months in prison and a fine of up to €20,000 ($27,358).
There was a one-day trial in June, and a little less than a week ago, on September 8, a Paris court convicted Galliano under the criminal hate speech laws and found him guilty on two counts of public insults. He received no jail time and was given a suspended fine of €6,000 (about $8,200), however, he will have a criminal record. Galliano will also have to pay €16,500 ($23,200) in court fees for the three plaintiffs and five anti-racisms groups, as well as a symbolic €1 ($1.40) in damages to each of them.
Ultimately, this was a divisive decision, leaving people both shocked and satisfied. Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress said, “It is outrageous that someone who told others that they ‘ought to be dead’ and expressed support for the Holocaust gets away with less than a slap on the wrist. This sentence demonstrates that there appears to be a culture of impunity in the entertainment world.” Alternatively, The Simon Wiesenthal Center released a statement saying, “the symbolic one euro fine by a French court was the right legal punishment for John Galliano’s public anti-Semitic outbursts. Now it is up to him to make amends to the community he demeaned and to the public at large, [this can be achieved] only through his future deeds and words.”
Given Europe’s history, do you think it makes sense to prosecute hate speech as a criminal offense? Or do you think Europe should relax their speech laws and follow a more American approach?
Considering that France is so adamant about its citizens playing nicely in the sandbox with one another, it surprises me that its lawmakers didn’t spend a whole lot of time playing in the playground sandbox as children. If they had, they probably would have familiarized themselves with the phrase, “Stick and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Maybe it just doesn’t flow as nicely in French.
This law should be repealed for the simple fact that it does more harm than good. Infringement on free speech rights – rights deemed as so rooted in the tradition of society that they are fundamental (at least in the U.S.) – is hardly worth preventing the offensiveness that is caused by “hate speech.”
Aside from the fact that the law intrudes on a basic fundamental right, the law should be repealed for a few other reasons. First, the term “hate speech” is elusive. Is hate speech strictly racially or ethnically-charged language? If so, which remarks are prescribed as “hateful” as it’s defined (or perhaps not-defined) under the statute? Suppose Mr. Galliano, instead of making the blatantly offensive remarks that he did, made a comment that included a stereotypical generalization (based in some truth) about an ethnic or racial group. Is he to be hit with the same heavy fines as he was in this instance? Second, a predominant goal of any law is deterrence of some act that is harmful to society. One may argue that this is precisely what the law in France does – it deters others from saying “mean” things which certain members of society prefer not to hear. But no matter how much we force Mr. Galliano to keep his mouth shut, we cannot change his views and opinions. Mr. Galliano will still live his life as an anti-semite. He will select his business associations as an anti-semite. He will choose his friends as an anti-semite. He will do everything exactly the same except, curtesy of the law in France, he will have to do it in secret. Personally, I think it’s better that we all know who the real Mr. Galliano is. That way, when Mr. Galliano chooses not to do business with Jewish customers, he wont have any facade to hide behind in doing so. We will all be clear on the fact that Mr. Galliano conducts business or even his personal life, as a hateful and malicious person. The stigma associated with this is far worse than some petty fine. Jewish customers, for example, may stop purchasing his clothes as a result. This would probably incentivize Mr. Galliano to quit his anti-semetic rambling much faster than a brief jail visit or some petty fine. Lastly, “hate” is a term that can easily and dangerously morph with the times. For example, “hate speech” was also outlawed and punishable in France in 1942 (sorry French Parliament, this isn’t a novel idea). It was illegal to sit in a cafe in France blabbering about how much you hated “the Fuhrer.” In fact, penalties were much stricter. Doing so may have meant a late night visit from some very unpleasant government officials who were there to make sure you received the proper reform so that you were no longer “hateful.” Point being that “hate” speech is whatever the guy in charge says it is and, if the guy in charge is a lunatic like Adolf Hitler, criminalizing “hate” speech may prevent us from saying some things that probably need to be said.
There is much to be said here. I agree with Lilly’s assessment that under U.S. law, Galliano’s comments, while racially-charged and bigoted, do not rise to the level of fighting words prohibited by the First Amendment. And indeed, Justin’s comment properly eludes to the slippery slope of banning words. But, we are talking about something more than just mere offensiveness, aren’t we? (See Justin’s comment above, “Infringement on free speech rights – rights deemed as so rooted in the tradition of society that they are fundamental… is hardly worth preventing the offensiveness that is caused by ‘hate speech.’”) We are talking about hatred. Yes, I understand the postmodern argument that hate speech means whatever the judges and legislatures say it means. But, we all know what true hatred is, don’t we? It’s this vile rage that so quickly erupts into atrocity. Hatred against Jews runs deep within our civilization. Anti-Semitic remarks stir up the darkest and most painful emotions of a world that has yet to heal from the atrocities of the Holocaust.
I find the policy behind criminalizing hate speech to be well taken. In her facebook status this evening, a colleague writes, “My friends, if you believe that the N-word doesn’t still carry hatred and foster racism, you are sadly mistaken.”
My first thought is that I am content there was some sort of justice, albeit de minimis, against John Galliano’s appalling behavior and choice of degrading words. I do agree, however, that the stigma associated with Galliano is much worse than this petty judgment against him. Even though his anti-Semitic rant is an embarrassing display of ignorance and intolerance, where do we draw the line on censorship, now in a criminal setting? I agree with Justin that “hate speech” is in the eye of the beholder and it is difficult to weed out real “hate speech” from pure, unadulterated censorship. It may be better to expose these people rather than deter them from speaking publicly. Galliano publicly humiliated himself, but he will still retain his opinions no matter how much money he had to pay.