- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2007

French Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy and his government’s Constitutional Council have approved a ban on the recording of acts of violence by anyone but accredited journalists, prompted by the rise of a form of hooliganism called “happy slapping.” In America, such a restriction would rightly be considered a draconian and unnecessary offense to First Amendment rights. But in France, where the phenomenon’s novelty has invigorated the heavyhanded Mr. Sarkozy and prompted questions about high technology and crime, it is being taken seriously.

“Happy slapping” is the act of attacking an unwitting stranger and recording it with a cell-phone camera for distribution on the Internet. Despite the name, the attacks aren’t much of a laughing matter, at least not in the worst instances. Some cases in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have turned fatal in what is sometimes called mimicry of the 1971 film “A Clockwork Orange” or of “Jackass,” an MTV stunt-and-prank series which is sometimes cited (usually unfairly) in the injuries or deaths of copycats. “Happy slapping” is regular old assault with a technological twist.

Despite the evident seriousness of the problem, until now, assault hasn’t required blanket restrictions on otherwise legal behavior. Accordingly, “citizen journalists,” bloggers and voices in the media are nonplussed. Here’s the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders, which sounds positively livid: “The sections of this law supposedly dealing with ‘happy slapping’ in fact have a much broader scope, and posting videos online showing violence against people could now be banned, even if it were the police who were carrying out the violence.”

And indeed it would seem that there are plenty of instances in which the recording of an act of violence would be justified and useful, as evidence in a trial, or, as Reporters Without Borders contends, a check on abusive behavior by authorities. It stands to reason that authorities could combat “happy slapping” as they do other high-tech crimes, like the proliferation of online child pornography: Pursue offenders in part through monitoring and high-tech means and in part through old-fashioned law enforcement. When an offender is caught, prosecute him aggressively.

Of course, looming above this debate is the matter of France’s violent suburbs and Muslim immigrant malcontents, mostly famously the Paris suburb of Clichy sous Bois, which erupted in violence in October 2005 and has since simmered. No one has accused Mr. Sarkozy of a ruse involving “happy slapping” recording bans to muffle coverage of France’s serious immigrant-violence problem. But then, that is only a step or two removed from the current debate. And everyone knows France is ill-inclined to expose the problem fully, much less handle it.



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