Charlie Heb(No)

By Enrica Barberis

Back in November 2015, the Italian right-wing paper Libero was under fire for a blunt headline. The two-word title, “Bastardi Islamici”, meaning bastard Muslims, opened the first page of the newspaper the day after the Paris attacks.

This headline created a lot of debate on freedom of speech in Italy, and many journalists took positions against the Editor of the newspaper, Maurizio Belpietro.

“That kind of communication is dangerous as well as criminal,” said Tommaso Notarianni, director of the online newspaper PeaceReporter, who sued Libero and Belpietro. “It only incites to religious hatred.”

Just a few days ago the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo published a cartoon about the earthquake that destroyed entire villages in central Italy on August 23.

“A severely bleeding man is labeled ‘penne with tomato sauce.’ A woman with a badly bruised or burned face is ‘penne au gratin.’ And a pile of victims pancaked beneath a collapsed building, their legs sticking out from the bloodied rubble, is ‘lasagna.’” an article on CNN says.

This example, as well as the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January two years ago, both raise an important question: should there be limits to freedom of expression? Yes, freedom of speech shall exist as far as it does not change into hate speech. European courts attach very little weight to freedom of expression when the speech in question is deemed “gratuitously offensive” or “hateful.”

Citizens of the European Union enjoy freedom of speech, of press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration. However, this freedom is being compromised in these years of fear. There is a line that can not be crossed.

“Whether dealing with terrorism, extremism, racism or privacy concerns, the European default solution seems to

involve chipping away at freedom of expression,” argued Jacob Mchangama in an article on the EUobserver last spring.

Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair was appointed chairman of the ‘European Council for Tolerance and Reconciliation’ last spring. Blair’s strategy is built on the essentially illiberal idea of furthering existing bans against hate speech.

The right to freedom of speech is preserved in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is granted formal recognition by the laws of most nations. Nonetheless the degree to which the right is upheld in practice varies greatly from one nation to another.

Some governments, such as China or Saudi Arabia, enforce censorship overtly. However censorship has also been claimed to occur in countries seen as liberal democracies disguised as laws protecting from hate speech, obscenity, and defamation.

In the United States, the First Amendment to the Constitution protects freedom of expression. However, even where freedom of speech seems to be valued the most, several common law limitations exist. Exceptions include obscenity, defamation, incitement to riot or imminent lawless action, or speech integral to criminal conduct. Americans pride themselves of having absolute freedom of speech in their country. They are wrong.

Technically all the limitations to the freedom of speech in democratic countries are violations of United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet they are absolutely necessary and right. Freedom of speech shall exist as far as it does not change into hate speech.


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