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.