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France Free Speech on Trial Again

Issued: 2018-03-22

Image Credits: Global Panorama, Flickr.

“Free speech can’t just apply to those you agree with,” the editor of Spiked Online, Brendan O’Neill, once said. Politically correct speech does not need protecting. The United States’ First Amendment exists precisely to protect the minority from the majority and to protect unpopular opinions from those who would silence them.

On March 2, French prosecutors decided that Marine Le Pen should be prosecuted for drawing attention on Twitter to the atrocities committed by Islamic State. They apparently decided that Le Pen’s message, even if factually correct, should not be heard.

Le Pen’s “crime,” the prosecutors allege, is that in a series of tweets, she posteddisturbing images of victims of Islamic State, thereby exposing the crimes against humanity that group have been committing in the Levant.

Presumably, these were potential dangers about which she thought the public should be aware. They included the beheading of the British journalist, James Foley, who was repeatedly beaten, starved, and waterboarded before his throat was slit.

Other tweets documented a Jordanian fighter pilot, Moaz al-Kasasbeh, in a cage, being burned alive, and a tank crushing a Syrian army soldier. These crimes, however, are those of Islamic State, not Marine Le Pen.

Her most objectionable crime, apparently, was to have distributed a picture of Foley’s decapitated corpse with the tweet, “Daesh is THIS!”

It would be hard to disagree. Even Islamic State does not deny that these events took place. On, the contrary, it broadcast them globally. Le Pen was merely informing people, in the most striking way she could, that Islamic State is a murderous organisation that continues to slaughter innocents. She is issuing a warning.

Marine Le Pen did not suggest that all Muslims are terrorists. She did not suggest that anyone should use violence against Muslims. She did not even suggest that French people should take action against Islam.

She did not stage or misrepresent the facts. She did not share material that was doctored or false. Someone might suggest that perhaps she was attacking Islam or Muslim attitudes by distributing pictures of its activities. Even so, why should that be grounds for silencing her, prosecuting her, for stripping her of immunity, conceivably imprisoning her for three years and fining her €75,000?

Why should Le Pen — or anyone — not be able to criticise or inform the public about Islamic extremism — or anything for that matter? One would think it especially important for a politician, who is responsible for the welfare of the public, to advise it of potential threats. What, for instance, if people had not been allowed to warn people about Communism? How convenient for Communists that would have been!

In addition, what are people to do who may not have the resources to fight the bottomless war chests of the French Government? How are they ever to speak out without fear of legal retribution? Or is the real, secret, goal of the state to have no one who disagrees with it speak out?

One might object to publishing a picture of a decapitated body on the grounds of good taste, or that it would be painful for Foley’s family to see. But should that be the reason for someone to face an exorbitant fine, crushing court costs, and a possible jail term? Le Pen was merely highlighting the crimes of a terrorist organisation that has already attacked France, and murdered hundreds on French streets.

Imprisoning politicians is, of course, a tidy way for a state to silence those who disagree with it. The former USSR under the KGB, and Germany’s STASI, doubtless assumed it was simply a professional perk. Russian President Vladimir Putin, in fact, just guaranteed that in upcoming elections, his leading challenger, Alexey Navalney, will be unable to run. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey seems to find arresting anyone who disagrees with him a favourite pastime, with more than 113,000 – including possibly 150 journalists. Is this the model Western democracies would like?

Le Pen’s message was clear: Islamic State’s practices and the ideology of extremist Muslims must not come to Europe.

Unfortunately, they already have. Since the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, in January 2015, the Islamic State and its affiliates have murdered more than 247 individuals. For how long can France afford to keep its head in the sand?

Le Pen, in what increasingly looks like an empty attempt to silence her, appears to be trapped in a politically motivated prosecution. The charge states that Le Pen is allegedly guilty of: “Violent messages that incite terrorism or pornography or seriously harm human dignity.”

Regardless of your stance on the politics of Marine Le Pen, to say that she is aiming to “incite terrorism” has no basis. On the contrary, Le Pen has been virtually the only politician in France consistently raising difficult questions on how to fight terrorism. She has suggested that France must reinstate border checks to “counter terrorism.” She has repeatedly said that politicians who do not stand their ground in seeing Islamism with clear eyes are failing to stand up for their country. She notes, “I’m on the ground to meet the French people to draw their attention to important subjects, including Islamist terrorism to which the least we can say Mr Macron is weak on.”

As to the second element of the charge against her, if the actions of Islamic State are indecent, evil or pornographic, this does not mean that alerting people to them is — any more than 18th century drawings informing people about the mass beheadings during the French Revolution, or Hitler’s atrocities during the Second World War. Not to inform the public about them could justifiably be viewed a dereliction of duty and reckless endangerment.

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