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The Australian, 29 March 2014

WHAT could an eccentric Swedish pastor, a drunk British student and Brigitte Bardot possibly have in common?

All have been imprisoned or threatened with imprisonment for saying offensive things about minority groups.

The Swedish pastor, Ake Green, was sentenced to a month in jail in 2004 for criticising homosexuality from the pulpit of his Pentecostal church.

He described homosexuality as “abnormal, a horrible cancerous tumour in the body of ­society”.

A local judge decreed that these words constituted a hate crime under Swedish law, which forbids making statements that “threaten or express disrespect for an ethnic group or similar group”.

The British student, Liam Stacey, was sentenced to 56 days in prison at Swansea Magistrates’ Court in 2012 after he tweeted racist comments about black soccer player Fabrice Muamba.

Stacey, inebriated at the time of his unhinged tweeting, was found guilty under Britain’s extraordinarily broad Public Order Act, which makes it an offence to “display any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting”.

As for Bardot, the French movie starlet turned animal rights activist, she hasn’t been jailed for the things she has said, but she has been fined and warned that jail is a possibility in the future.

In her role as animal lover, Bardot has become a ­vociferous critic of the Islamic ritualised slaughter of animals, describing it as a barbaric practice that is “destroying our country”.

For saying stuff like that, she has been convicted and fined five times under France’s 1881 Law on Freedom of the Press, which makes it a crime to “incite racial discrimination, hatred or violence”, and has had to fork out €30,000.

Those are just three of the thousands of punishments for hate speech doled out in Europe in recent years.

In Canada, too, people have found themselves on the receiving end of censure for saying hateful or disrespectful things about certain groups.

So as Australians hotly debate section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, under which journalist Andrew Bolt was punished in 2011 for criticising “fair-skinned people” who claim to be Aboriginal, it’s worth pulling back and looking at the international context.

Globally speaking, there’s little novel about Bolt’s case. His political criticisms of Aboriginal heritage could just as easily have landed him in legal hot water in Europe and other parts of the world.

The Bolt case is no Aussie one-off — it’s better understood as part of a global war against so-called hate speech, where states are clamping down on what they consider to be offensive words, and in the process are criminalising certain moral, political and religious world views and trampling on freedom of speech.

Section 18C makes it unlawful for individuals to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” someone because of race or ethnicity.

Attorney-General George Brandis is trying to reform it, suggesting that, in the interests of freedom of speech, the words “offend”, “insult” and “humiliate” should be taken out, but “intimidate” should be left in and joined by the word “vilify”.

Similar laws against hateful or insulting expression exist across Europe and, as in Australia, they’ve been used not only to punish the blindly prejudiced but also those who possess outre views.

So in Denmark it is against the law to “mock or scorn … any lawfully existing religious community”.

Do that, and you can be jailed for four months.

In Finland, anyone who “distributes among the public” words that “threaten, slander or insult on account of race” can be jailed for up to two years.

In Germany it’s against the law to “insult, maliciously malign or defame” people on the basis of race or religion.

France criminalises “any ­offensive expression, contemptuous term or invective” against racial or religious groups.

In Belgium, anyone who “insults a religious object”, including by “words (or) gestures”, can be jailed for up to six months.

Never shake a fist at a statue of the Virgin Mary if you visit Belgium.

Across the pond, in Canada, the Human Rights Act forbids the public expression of “hateful or contemptuous” thoughts about ethnic minorities and faith groups.

All these laws have been used to punish not just the mad racist who screams the N-word on street corners but also political speech and expressions of religious conviction.

So, in Britain, three Muslims were recently convicted of a hate crime for distributing a leaflet in which the word gay was laid out as an acronym that said “God ­Abhors You”.

In 2010, a Danish historian was found guilty of “insulting” a religious group after he said in an inter­view that there was a peculiarly high incidence of crime in Muslim areas.

In 2011, an Austrian writer was found guilty of “agitating against a group” and fined €480 for giving a critical speech on Islam that included the line, “Mohammed had a thing for little girls”.

In 2010, a Finnish politician was found guilty of “incitement against an ethnic group” after he said increased immigration to Finland would increase crime.

We may well disagree with the views expressed in these cases. But they’re nonetheless just views; expressions of strong religious ideas about sexuality or political opposition to immigration. Increasingly in the West, what would once have been seen as legitimate speech in the rowdy fray of public debate is being rebranded “hatred” and punished with fines or jail time.

However much PC packaging is attached to these laws, there’s no dodging the fact they are used to deeply censorious ends, punishing moral outlooks that the mainstream finds offensive.

Where did these laws punishing mockery and offence come from? Tracing the history of hate speech legislation is fascinating, for it tells us a profound and depressing story about the modern West’s bit-by-bit abandonment of free speech.

Modern hate speech leg­islation was born from World War II. There was a feeling that hatred needed to be curbed to prevent another outburst of fascist hysteria. But it wasn’t Western governments calling for laws against hate speech — it was the authoritarian Soviet Union.

In 1948, world leaders gathered to construct a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Soviet representatives argued that the section on free speech should be qualified by strictures against hate speech. They proposed an amendment making it a crime to advocate “national, racial or religious hostility”. “(We cannot) allow advocacy of hatred or religious contempt,” they said.

Such efforts to water down freedom of speech in the name of combating hate were opposed by Western delegates. From the US, Eleanor Roosevelt said a hate speech qualification would be “extremely dangerous” since “any criticism of public or religious authorities might all too easily be described as incitement to hatred” (how prescient she was). In later discussions, British representative Lady Gaitskell said a hate speech amendment would “infringe the fundamental right of freedom of speech”.

The Soviets lost on the hate speech front in 1948. But they kept pushing. They were finally successful in 1965 with the creation of the UN’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. Despite the continued opposition of Western delegates and their allies — one of whom said that “to penalise ideas, whatever their nature, is to pave the way for tyranny” — the new 1965 convention did contain a section calling for the criminalisation of “ideas based on racial superiority or hatred”.

It was the spread of this convention into domestic law, everywhere from Austria to Australia, that led to the creation of crimes of hate speech around the world in the late 1960s and early 70s.

So the story of hate speech laws is a story of the West’s slow but sure ditching of freedom of speech. Where once Western leaders opposed the criminalisa­tion of words — “whatever their nature” — more recently they’ve come to see certain speech as dangerous after all, and something that must be punished.

We’re witnessing the victory of the Soviet view of speech as bad and censorship as good, with various members of the modern West’s chattering classes unwittingly aping yesteryear’s communist tyrants as they call for the banning of “advocacy of hatred”, and a corresponding demise of the older enlightened belief that ideas and words should never be curtailed.

Some will say, “So what if we’re finishing off the Soviet Union’s dirty work? At least we’re preventing hatred.” But here’s the thing: history shows that, actually, hate speech laws don’t even help to combat hate.

The Weimar Republic of the 30s had laws against “insulting religious communities”. They were used to prosecute hundreds of Nazi agitators, including Joseph Goebbels. Did it stop them? No. It helped them.

The Nazis turned their prosecutions for hate speech to their advantage, presenting themselves as political victims and whipping up public support among aggrieved sections of German society, their future social base. Far from halting Nazism, hate speech legislation assisted it.

It is surely time every hate speech law was repealed. They are a menace to free thought and speech, and the worst tool imaginable for fighting real hatred.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of Spiked in London. He is speaking on The New Enemies of Freedom at the Occidental Hotel in Sydney next Thursday. www.cis.org.au/events