Albany, NY – In today's Academic Minute, Dr. Erik Bleich of Middlebury College contrasts how Americans and Europeans value and protect freedom of speech.
Erik Bleich is a professor of political science at Middlebury College where his research focuses on issues surrounding race and ethnicity in West European politics. His research has appeared in journals such as World Politics, Comparative Political Studies, Comparative Politics, the European Political Science Review, the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, and Theory & Society. In 2011 he published, The Freedom to be Racist: How the United States and Europe Struggle to Preserve Freedom and Combat Racism.
Dr. Erik Bleich - Freedom of Speech
Should it be illegal in a democracy for people to say that Muslims are evil? Americans believe that the First Amendment protects this kind of anti-Muslim speech. And they're right. Supreme Court decisions over the past 50 years have enshrined the right for Islamophobes to say virtually anything they want in public.
In most European countries, it's not the same. Europeans value free speech, but they also give roughly equal weight to social cohesion, human dignity, and public order. This means that they frequently engage in a balancing act between free speech and these other values. In Denmark, for example, the controversial cartoons of Muhammad published in 2005 were protected speech. But, the state prosecuted a politician who compared Muslims to a societal cancer that needed to be cut out. In Britain, a far right party activist was fined for hanging a poster in his window with a picture of the Twin Towers in flames and the words "Islam out of Britain protect the British people."
Most Americans think that laws like these inevitably lead to a slippery slope: to more and more state restrictions on all kinds of speech. But in Europe, free speech is still the norm. Prosecutions for racist speech are relatively rare, and penalties typically involve fines, not jail sentences. The purpose of these laws is to signal that some speech, when highly inflammatory, can do more harm than good, especially when it deepens potentially violent social divisions.
At one point, the United States pursued a similar strategy. As recently as the 1950s, the Supreme Court allowed cities and states to curb racist speech. In our contemporary era where anti-Muslim statements are being linked with systematic discrimination, hate crimes, and even mass murders, European countries offer an alternative model for how to balance the crucial values of upholding free speech and fighting racism.