Freedom of speech is something we only really talk about with reference to statements we condemn. Damage done to this principle may last long after the motive and the rulers who exploited it have been forgotten. In the atmosphere of near-panic immediately after 9/11, only one US senator, Russell Feingold, voted against the Patriot Act with its freedom-destroying raft of measures, which were adopted en bloc by Congress on the pretext of combating terrorism. Thirteen years and one president later, these emergency measures are still in force.
We know that ministers of the interior are more concerned with order and security than with freedom. Every new threat encourages them to call for a fresh repressive measure that will attract the support of an anxious or outraged public. In January, France decided to ban meetings and shows judged contrary to “proper respect for human dignity”. Interior minister Manuel Valls, repelled by the anti-Semitic tirades of the controversial comedian Dieudonné (1), whom Valls claimed “is no longer funny” and whose behaviour “has nothing to do with creativity”, warned: “Nothing is ruled out, including stricter laws” (2). But a democratic state should not agree easily to allow the minister in charge of the police to rule ex officio on humour and creativity — even where both are conspicuously absent.
In July 1830 Charles X issued a decree revoking the freedom of the press, and one of his supporters justified the reintroduction of the principle of prior censorship to replace after-the-fact appeals to the courts: “The damage is already done when the law intervenes; far from repairing the damage, punishment merely adds scandal and debate” (3). Ways were found to ignore the decree and next day the newspapers appeared as usual without prior authorisations. The public rushed to read them and discuss the contents. Charles’s reign ended in revolution.
Now rebels, pariahs and reprobates have tens of thousands of subscribers on Twitter; they can hold “meetings” through YouTube sprawled on couches in their living rooms. If we ban shows and public meetings, must we also penalise broadcasting of the same content on social networks? That would turn scandalmongers into victims of “the system”, and justify their most paranoid accusations.
Responding to Valls’s initiatives, a former Socialist minister acknowledged his concerns regarding “a deeply retrograde step, introducing a preventive measure … preemptive moral censorship of free speech.” He concluded, perhaps charitably: “Our best minds have been swayed by emotion, anger and revolt against infamy” (4).
(1) Dieudonné’s touring stage show was banned in January 2014 for fomenting hatred against Jews.
(2) Interview on Aujourd’hui en France, Paris, 28 December 2013.
(3) Quoted by Jean-Noël Jeannenay, Les Grandes Heures de la presse qui ont fait l’histoire, Flammarion, Paris, 2013, p 28.