Highs and Lows of Free Speech

It was announced today that MP Geert Wilders, leader of the PVV party, was acquitted of charges of inciting hatred and insulting Muslims as a group. This ongoing case has made me think more closely about the freedom of speech, a freedom we talk about a lot in the United States, but don’t necessarily really think about often.

Some argued that the case was a matter of protecting free-speech rights, while others argued that it was necessary to protect a minority group from words and actions that could lead to violence. Both issues are important, but from my understanding of the case, as much as I dislike Wilders, I didn’t truly understand how a case could be made against him. Do I disagree with his statements comparing the Qur’an to Mein Kampf? Yes, of course. I think that’s just sensationalism designed to get attention. Do I think he’s right in regards to his thoughts on non-Western immigrants? No. I don’t like stereotypes that create anger and fear in both sides of the populace, thus ensuring that integration becomes more difficult.

Yet while the things he says are often (usually) repugnant to me, I don’t think he committed a crime. For what it’s worth, even the public prosecutor didn’t believe a crime had been committed and called for an acquittal. There’s a fine line in free speech. The things Wilders has said in the public forum tread closely to that line, but I don’t know that he crossed it. As a politician and public figure, I would expect him to be more careful with his words, but I do believe in the freedom to express dissenting ideas.

There is a famous quote, erroneously attributed to Voltaire, that sums up the feelings many people have regarding the freedom of speech: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” I lean in this direction, as much as I dislike the things that people like Wilders or groups like the Westboro Baptist Church or the Ku Klux Klan have to say. As a secularist, I also believe very firmly in the separation of church and state. I don’t believe extra protection should be given to religions. I do believe, though, that everyone should have all of the same basic rights and freedoms, as long as they don’t infringe upon the rights, freedoms and security of others. Thus, the freedom of speech should be maintained and not treated lightly. You may not like what a person is saying, but if you start treading on their rights to say something with which you disagree, you also run the risk of having your own rights to express your point of view limited, and that is the bottom line for me. I may dislike what someone says, but at least I have the freedom to say so!

If you want to read more about Wilders and this trial, Radio Netherlands Worldwide has a number of articles (in English) that you may want to use as a starting point.

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4 thoughts on “Highs and Lows of Free Speech

  1. Brilliantly said Alison,
    I agree with what you said.
    I have always hoped that people could just ignore people who spout hatred and spite and just look at them instead with pity, after all they are simply showing their lack of intelligence and knowledge as a world citizen and they deserve no space in the media or special attention.
    That said, I also find it hard sometimes: Just how much is someone allowed to verbally abuse someone else without there being repercussions?
    Verbal abuse is still abuse and just because someone has the “right” to say what they want doesn’t mean that they have the “right” to use that to abuse someone else.

    But do we also want a society that gives some extremists carte blanche to personally go up to anyone (even a child) who looks , talks, eats, dresses or does anything else different than they do, and torment them with endless streams of racist, hateful, nasty,hurtful comments just because “we have the *right* to say what we like?”
    That thought troubles me as deeply as the thought that our views may be censured.

    Extremists everywhere have a lot of answer for and this becomes a very thorny issue the closer we get to the line where “acceptable and not acceptable behaviour” meet.

    Like you, I think I come down heavily on the side of free speech but I think we do also have to somehow try and set a line that also should not be crossed.
    Pinning the line in a particular spot is massively difficult task and I’d hate to be the one who had to try and do it.
    Brilliant post!

    • Beautifully said, as well! I think the difference maybe comes down to individuals versus groups. Wilders was saying things about Muslims as a group, rather than saying things about specific Muslims. Thus, if you go after an individual, I do believe there are more rights and protections, as there certainly should be. There have been a lot of instances of bullying in the US recently, often leading to the death of the person bullied. In that case, I do think the bully deserves serious repercussions. In part because I figure they’re infringing on that person’s “pursuit of happiness”.

      There’s so much grey in the world, rather than black and white, so as you say, trying to pin down that one spot that crosses the line is incredibly difficult. Like you, I’d hate to be the one responsible for making that choice.

  2. As much as I dislike him too, I don’t think they had a case against him either. Strictly speaking, every time he rants against immigration or Muslims or Islam, he’s voicing an opinion – he’s a politician and his words can cause great damage, inciting to violence, damaging the image of the country outside the NL (as we saw in that BBC documentary some time ago), but in theory he is excercising his right to freedom of speech.
    Of course I would’ve liked to see him found guilty and with his political career finished – but from the start it was clear that it would not happen. Unfortunately, he will continue to harangue people who are vulnerable to his kind of speech and ideas- we can only hope that he will be somehow checked by the rest of the representatives that form the Dutch gov’t today. On the positive side, the system here in the NL that allows for a coalition gov’t might work to prevent him from going for too drastic measures that would provoke further hatred and antagonism against a particular group of people.

  3. So well said, Allison. My fear is that he will now gain in popularity because of this verdict. I certainly don’t want him to get any more attention. Liberals always fight for everyone to have a voice, even when it is completely against what they believe. Liberals believe in individual rights for all, no matter what their beliefs are. And yet, liberals get heat for this. We let others speak, so that we can voice our opinions too.
    I would love to live in a world where everyone joins hands and sings Kumbaya, but it is not going to happen. But I can dream….

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