When British journalist Katie Hopkins stepped down from LBC radio last week after publishing an “anti-Islamic” tweet, she became just the latest examples of Europe’s inexorable push to label and stamp out as many forms of “hate speech” as possible.
In the wake of the Manchester suicide bombing at an Ariana Grande concert, which killed 22 people and wounded at least 116 others, the inflammatory Hopkins issued a since-deleted tweet calling for a “final solution” to combat terrorist attacks.
“Hateful ideas (whatever exactly that might mean) are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas.”
“22 dead— number rising,” Hopkins tweeted May 23. “Schofield. Don’t you even dare. Do not be a part of the problem. We need a final solution #Machester [sic.]”
The term “final solution” is widely considered a reference to Nazi Germany’s official “final solution” strategy to wipe out Jewish citizens during the Holocaust. Hopkins later maintained that it was a typo and published a revised tweet calling for a “true solution.” But after the Metropolitan Police received complaints against Hopkins’ tweet, LBC confirmed Hopkins’ impending exit from the company, according to the Independent.
The U.S. treasures its First Amendment rights and privileges, under which Americans are shielded from legal consequences for voicing their opinions. President Trump, for example, has drawn fire from critics who accuse him of using “hate speech” simply by stating an opinion shared by many Americans: that politicians should identify Islamic terrorism by name in order to fight it effectively.
This lack of politically correct precision in Trump’s language choices has not earned any consequence more severe than criticism from his political opponents. But language dubbed to be “anti-Islamic” and categorized as “hate speech” earns many Europeans a variety of legal consequences.
England and Wales adhere to Public Order Act 1986 and its several amendments, including the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, and the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008. These acts prohibited expressions of hatred regarding race, religion, or sexual orientation and expressions that can incite such hatred. The original 1986 Act prohibited citizens from using “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour, or displays any written material which is threatening, abusive or insulting.”
However, free-speech activists in the U.K. launched a campaign in 2012 to remove prohibitions of “insulting” language from section 5 of the Public Order Act. The Act was later amended to reflect the revised language.
France adheres to a strict penal code that prohibits both private and public defamation, insults and incitements to violence toward any person or group based on race, religion, sexual orientation, and other categories. Violating this penal code can accrue monetary fines and stints in prison for up to one year.
Germans are not allowed publicly to incite hatred, insult, or defame different groups. Germany even passed a law in April that allows the country to fine social media sites if they fail to react in a timely manner to curb expressions of hate speech on their platforms and other illegal content.
In Belgium, citizens must abide by the Belgian Anti-Racism Law, which punishes speech and acts and of racism or xenophobia.
The Dutch may not “publicly, orally, in writing or graphically, incite hatred against, discrimination of or violent action against person or belongings of people because of their race, their religion or their life philosophy, their gender, their heterosexual or homosexual orientation or their physical, psychological or mental disability.” Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders was found guilty of violating these laws in 2016 when he called for “fewer Moroccans” to enter the country.
In addition, the Council of Europe installed its own European Commission against Racism and Intolerance with the purpose of stamping out what it deemed to be anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim words and sentiments.
All of these regulations and prohibitions are diametrically opposed to the United States’ First Amendment and the freedom of speech protected therein. Anti-hate speech laws in European countries, however, broadly define what qualifies as prohibited words or images, exposing citizens to potential punishment for voicing unpopular opinions about thorny subjects.
In the wake of the Manchester suicide bombing, Americans were permitted to utter language deemed by others to be offensive or anti-Islamic while many Europeans could not legally do so. While European discourse is hampered and regulated by the various laws, statues and penal codes, Americans endure no such restrictions.
Even the liberal American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) highly treasures Americans’ rights to utter speech the organization itself deems incredibly offensive. Its legal director, Steven Shapiro, told NPR in 2010 that “The First Amendment really was designed to protect a debate at the fringes.”
“You don’t need the courts to protect speech that everybody agrees with, because that speech will be tolerated,” Shapiro said at the time. “You need a First Amendment to protect speech that people regard as intolerable or outrageous or offensive — because that is when the majority will wield its power to censor or suppress, and we have a First Amendment to prevent the government from doing that.”
In response to the heated and ongoing debate about “free-speech zones” on campuses and whether conservative speakers should be invited to address college campuses, the Harvard Crimson editorial board wrote in an article last week that “controversial speakers have the right to expound upon whatever claims they desire—including those that we believe to be offensive and factually wrong.”
“This is their right of free speech, and we wholeheartedly support it,” the article continued. “Any infringement on any person’s speech, however odious that speech might be, is a threat to the free expression that has fueled our democracy.”
The First Amendment protects peoples’ right to utter “hate speech” in a manner that allows the free exchange of ideas while preventing ideologies from falling prey to intolerance and censorship.
On the campaign trail, Trump was criticized both at home and abroad for “racist” anti-illegal immigration statements and “Islamophobic” rhetoric, including his push to step up the fight against ISIS and his view that the U.S. should halt or suspend the flow of Muslim refugees. While Trump, other Republicans and other American politically incorrect individuals received those labels, Germany had already criminalized such words as “hate speech.”
As the BBC noted back in December 2015, “the First Amendment right to freedom of speech under the U.S. Constitution permits Donald Trump to make claims and proposals that others might deem unacceptable incitement.” The BBC took issue with Trump’s calls to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, his statements declaring some illegal Mexican immigrants as “criminals” and “rapists,” and the idea of a temporary refugee ban.
“In other countries, including many European ones where the experience of fascism is still deeply etched, some of these claims might well have fallen foul of hate-speech laws,” BBC noted.
But as Washington Post columnist Eugene Volokh wrote back in May 2015, “there is no hate-speech exception to the First Amendment.”
“Hateful ideas (whatever exactly that might mean) are just as protected under the First Amendment as other ideas,” Volokh wrote. “One is as free to condemn Islam — or Muslims, or Jews, or blacks, or whites, or illegal aliens, or native-born citizens — as one is to condemn capitalism or Socialism or Democrats or Republicans.”
“For this very reason, ‘hate speech’ also doesn’t have any fixed legal meaning under U.S. law,” Volokh added. “U.S. law has just never had occasion to define ‘hate speech’ — any more than it has had occasion to define rudeness, evil ideas, unpatriotic speech, or any other kind of speech that people might condemn but that does not constitute a legally relevant category.”
While conservatives in the U.S. are called “racists” and “Islamophobes” for their immigration policies and aversion to radical Islamic terrorism, they can express their opinions freely and without fear of legal penalties. But in Europe, support for certain immigration policies and general anti-terrorism sentiments can spur investigations like that of Hopkins’ tweets.