- - Wednesday, September 6, 2017


“Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t goin’ there,” as the ancient spiritual of the black church in America warns, and that goes double about free speech. “Free speech” sounds good to just about everybody, but actual free speech is a brew too strong for everybody. Many meddlesome do-gooders applaud government-regulated speech and call it free speech. Everybody’s free to say what the government says is OK to say. What’s not free about that?

A new German law will take effect Oct. 1 to severely punish “hate speech” wherever found, including on Facebook and Twitter. The law prescribes fines of up to 50 million euros — about $60 million at current exchange rates — imposed on social media if it doesn’t delete the forbidden material within 24 hours. “The providers of social networks are responsible when their platforms are misused to spread hate crime or illegal false news,” German Justice Minister Heiko Maas says.

The German election is just three weeks away and the law raises questions about what constitutes “fake news” and “hate speech,” and, perhaps more important, who gets to answer the questions. Critics warn that the new law poses a clear and present danger to free speech in Germany, and that it will spread to similar laws across the European Union.

A week after Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Cabinet agreed to the draft of the legislation in April, nine NATO and European Union nations agreed to create a Helsinki-based center to combat fake news and other disinformation, which they call “hybrid threats.” Even the United States signed up, with Britain (which ought to know better), Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Sweden.

Washington should scorn this like the plague, because one man’s concern for “hybrid threats” is another’s man’s attempt to censor. German Green Party politician Renate Kunast has warned that the new law could bring about “a sharp limitation of freedom of speech, because there will only be deleting, deleting, deleting.” Facebook, which has 30 million users in Germany, says it’s working hard to remove illegal content, but it worries that the new German law “would force private companies instead of courts to decide which content is illegal in Germany.”

Nobody likes fake news, except for the news fakers, but demands for doing something about “fake news” and “hate speech,” on social media and off, are loudest from the snowflakes on the left, who would be happy to be the arbiter of both. But speech is too precious to put it in the care of those, including most of all the government, who would blame an obscure video that almost no one had seen for an orgy of death and destruction in Benghazi, who would create the myth of police abuse of the innocent in Ferguson, Mo., and who would rely on the Southern Poverty Law Center to determine who’s a hater and who’s not.

The best definition yet of free speech was by the Founding Fathers of the United States, which became the First Amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Those words need no amendment nor embellishment, and it’s their straightforward simplicity that confounds lawyers and others who would “improve” them. Anyone with a sincere wish to “improve” free speech just ain’t goin’ there. A perfect guarantee needs no improvement.

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