Free speech, the driving principle of the American experiment in how free men govern themselves, is a principle that does not always travel well. Free speech requires constant defense and the careful attention of loving hands. Mere lip service won’t do it.
Americans are armed with the First Amendment, the most important amendment of all, and it does not guarantee polite or even responsible speech, but free speech. The humblest citizen is entitled to say whatever he pleases. He can expect to pay the consequences of irresponsible speech, but the government can’t stop him from saying it.
Certain politicians even here from time to time seem frustrated enough to want to create exceptions. Who likes to hear himself berated by pipsqueaks? So far the Supreme Court has held the line, even upholding the right to say outrageous and wicked things unless they lead someone to commit actual crimes.
Alas, not so elsewhere, even among America’s allies pretending to honor free speech. Britain has an Official Secrets Act, which severely restricts what newspapers can print about affairs of state, and stepping out of line invites severe consequences. Germany has a particularly hard time understanding free speech.
Germans pretend to the right to speak freely, but it’s a pretense. They are free only to speak freely of what the government says is OK to say. The fatherland has a tough new line, effective this New Year’s Day, written to curtail “hate speech” on social media. That’s the bad news. The good news is that only five days into the new year the state has struck active resistance.
“Please spare us the thought police!” declares a headline in Bild, the top-selling newspaper in the republic, and the newspaper called the law a “sin” against freedom of opinion enshrined in the German constitution. The law is widely regarded as a bow to Muslim immigrants, many of whom regard any criticism of Islam and its founder Mohammad as unholy and verboten.
“The law against online hate speech failed on its very first day,” writes Julian Reichelt, the editor in chief of Bild. He observes that the law could be applied against anything and anyone because there is no clear definition of what is “manifestly unlawful.” This lack of definition is the opening that someone will drive a truck through (though one not laden with explosives).
The hate-speech law requires social-media sites to delete or block criminal content within 24 hours, with fines up to $60 million for sites that don’t quickly take down messages defined as “hate speech” or “fake news.” Supporters of the law (“snowflakes” thrive in Germany as robustly as in the United States) say the law will bring online speech in line with German law that curbs “hate speech” in print. Critics call it for what it is, censorship.
Police are investigating certain tweets made by two members of Alternative for Germany (AfD), a political party on the fringe, following a tweet by the party’s deputy leader calling Muslim men “barbaric” and given to “gang-raping.” This would be mild stuff in the United States, but it reflects the national rage two years ago after a New Year’s Eve jollification in Cologne turned violent, with hundreds of women reporting assaults, 24 of whom said they were raped.
Beatrix von Storch, the deputy leader of the party, tweeted a criticism of Cologne police for wishing the burgers of Cologne a happy new year in Arabic as well as in the German, French and English languages. This, she said, was an attempt to appease “barbaric, gang-raping Muslim hordes of men.”
For that her Twitter account was suspended, and after her party parliamentarian dispatched a supporting tweet, accusing German government authorities of submitting to complaints of “imported, marauding, groping, beating and knife-stabbing migrant mobs,” her Twitter account was suspended, too.
Frau von Storch, returning to Twitter after the suspension was lifted, compares the new law to “the methods of the Stasi,” the fearsome secret police under the Communist government of East Germany. Twitter takes no chances of going afoul of the government of Angela Merkel, a native of East Germany who brooks no criticism of snowflakes in her midst.
When the satirical magazine Titanic published a parody of the von Storch tweets and the suspension of the Twitter accounts, the magazine’s own account was suspended, too, and the particulars forwarded to Cologne police.
Anger at the new law is growing. DJV, the association of German journalists, says the Twitter blocks are “the kind of attacks on press freedom [we] warned would be the result of the new law. Freedom of speech is always difficult to suppress. Best of all, it’s addictive. Angela Merkel’s government should try it.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.