Free speech has been a hot topic this year. Is some speech too “dangerous” or “Painful” or “hatred-inciting” to be allowed? Can someone be prosecuted for showing a historical photograph that might be offensive to a protected group? While people in the US are arguing about it, and Canada’s parliament is listening to testimony about possible regulation of “Islamophobic” speech, the German government has made it a federal offense, punishable by large fines, if social media platforms do not quickly remove any material deemed “offensive and hateful” by the German government. And then there’s this, courtesy of the Gatestone Institute:
Meanwhile, the district court in Munich recently sentenced a German journalist, Michael Stürzenberger, to six months in jail for posting on his Facebook page a historical photo of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, shaking the hand of a senior Nazi official in Berlin in 1941. The prosecution accused Stürzenberger of “inciting hatred towards Islam” and “denigrating Islam” by publishing the photograph. The court found Stürzenberger guilty of “disseminating the propaganda of anti-constitutional organizations”. While the mutual admiration that once existed between al-Husseini and German Nazis is an undisputed historical fact, now evidently history is being rewritten by German courts. Stürzenberger has appealed the verdict.
I strongly encourage you to read the entire article from the Gatestone Institute. It is a clear example of what happens when a government’s powers come from above, not from below, and when protecting the people from possibly damaging ideas and words is more important than freedom of debate and discussion. The Germans, and British, are not the first to follow this path. In many ways, they are on the traditional route, and it is the United States that went totally off the historical deep end. As is our wont.
Does the government have a duty to protect the People from bad ideas? Many acts of censorship were done to impose political ideas, or cultural ones, to glorify a dynasty or to establish the new ruler as the only one people knew and remembered. If the previous books were gone, then after a generation or two, no one would remember enough to look back and be inspired to rebel, or to take challenges from survivors of the old dynasty seriously. Chinese historian Sima Quin credits the First Emperor with burning entire libraries – and scholars – in 221 BC/BCE in order to erase the Confucian past. There are some questions about that, given who wrote the histories, but the idea remained strong and seemed plausible. Because later dynasties did indeed censor material for a number of reasons.
But one reason to censor is to keep the people from being corrupted. North Korea is the most infamous power to do this today, but the idea goes well back in time. Religious authorities of various kinds have restricted books and manuscripts in order to keep out heretical or “wrong” information and ideas. I own books about the early histories of Christianity and Islam that would never be permitted into Saudi, or Iran, because they argue that Mohammed-the-Prophet never existed, and that certain inscriptions are really Christian, not Islamic, and that the Quran was not compiled until almost 200 years after the traditional date. Go back to the 1600s-1700s, and if you tried to bring a book by Martin Luther into the New World Spanish colonies, you would have it confiscated if you got caught.
North Korea’s Kim dynasty argues that the North Korean people are “pure” and “innocent,” and need to be protected from the corrupting and evil ideas outside the country. Thus the Kims have taken it upon themselves to wade through all the horrible things in order to heroically sift the useful and clean from the filth. Or so DPRK propaganda assures the people of North Korea.
Today we have people on college campi who insist that “someone” needs to keep other people from being hurt by words they disagree with. To argue that the Great Society’s programs contributed to the massive social and economic problems of many inner-city African-Americans instead of blaming colonialism and slavery and White Supremacy and the Patriarchy is hateful and must not be allowed to be said, because it offends someone. Minorities must be protected from certain words and ideas, because… because… reasons.
And so in Great Britain and Germany, as well as Communist China, we find the governments censoring speech in order to protect certain groups and ideologies. Criticism of government immigration policies and immigrants in Germany is verboten, as is Holocaust denial. British police dedicate resources to looking at Twitter and Facebook to see if anyone is being Islamophobic. It started with restrictions to limit pedophilia. And then it spread. Offensive on-line comments are now grounds for arrest. This can include complaining about Islamism, or about the government, or whatever the government decides is potentially damaging and hateful and might inspire someone to be naughty. Protecting people from hurtful words is more important than allowing “sunlight and air” to disinfect bad ideas and wrong information.
In the US we, or at least a lot of us, would consider that sort of thing absolutely wrong, and a gross violation of the First Amendment. Others see it as a good start and want that brought to the US. Is the job of government to protect people from harmful and hurtful ideas, or to allow anything short of direct incitement to riot to be debated and voiced? The global answer at the moment is A. The US has leaned towards B—for the federal government, not private corporations or individuals—since 1789.
We’re back to that old argument about the source of government power. Does it come from the people, those who consent to be governed and who have given some of our individual power to the government but who also reserve the right to take it back? Or does government come from above, with rights graciously given by the government to the populace, so long as the subjects do not abuse those rights.
Who decides what is hurtful? Who takes responsibility for filtering the world? I prefer it to be me. Other people want to be free from anything they disagree with or that might impugn members of [certain group]. The British and several European governments have decided that they must protect themselves and “the People” from some kinds of criticism and speech. I’m not optimistic about the results for those societies. That way tends to lead toward authoritarian and eventually totalitarian governments. Those stories have not ended well thus far.