Conzatti: Free Speech Being Squelched in Europe, Headed Our Way Next?

On May 31, the European Commission announced a partnership with tech moguls like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Microsoft to combat “racism, xenophobia and all forms of intolerance” on tech platforms by reviewing and removing hate speech within 24 hours.

Conservatives like myself voiced concerns about the agreement, which has been roundly denounced by digital rights groups and government watchdog organizations. Members of European Parliament have gone so far as calling the initiative “Orwellian.”

In my June 1 blog for FPIW, I voiced some of my concerns:

“As private corporations, technology companies certainly have the right to issue guidelines for the use of their platforms and censor speech that does not conform to their guidelines. What is concerning, however, is the collusion between private companies and a governmental body.

“Though officials from the European Commission and the tech companies involved insist that the purpose of the partnership is to restrict the ability of terrorists to disseminate their message through social media, many fear that speech deemed politically incorrect may also be censored.”

Imagine my lack of surprise when it was reported today that German police had raided the homes of 60 people who had allegedly propagated hate speech on social media, confiscating laptops, phones, and notebooks.

The suspects had posted “xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and other right-wing extremist content,” which German authorities claimed amounted to verbal and linguistic “violence” that “poison the social climate.”

Neo-Nazi hate speech is certainly deplorable. But should it be illegal? And what about criticism of the government’s handling of the refugee crisis? Should the homes of those who oppose increased numbers of refugees be raided? Should their families be interrogated? Should they be prosecuted?

Germany, like most other European nations, does not have strong free speech protections. Politically incorrect speech is more or less illegal. This is why it is so worrying that American tech companies, which profess to value open debate and a free exchange of ideas, are now working to help European governments silence and prosecute those who do nothing more than say that which is deemed politically incorrect.

Because the U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, even protecting hate speech so long as it does not contain actual threats of illegal conduct, it may be hard for Americans to understand the German approach to speech. In R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that ordinances which prohibit certain types of unfavorable and distasteful speech about race, creed, or gender are unconstitutional.

But the United States is not immune to the tidal wave of disregard for free speech rights spreading across the world.

Attorneys General United for Clean Power, a coalition of attorneys general from fifteen states, recently made news for threatening to prosecute public policy think tanks and private corporations that publish politically incorrect research about climate change (the attorneys general have since retreated, at least for now).

Free speech zones and trigger warnings are sweeping college campuses. Defending traditional marriage and biblical sexuality, or speaking against the prevailing theory of white cisgender privilege, is considered by many to be unprotected hate speech.

Americans needs to decide whether they will go the way of Europe or maintain their venerated tradition of free speech. Not only do we need to ask ourselves whether it is advisable for tech companies to assist countries in violating the free speech rights of their citizens, but do we, as Americans, want to preserve the rights of free speech for all – even for those who say offensive things?

Blaine Conzatti is a columnist and 2016 Research Fellow at the Family Policy Institute of Washington. He can be reached at Blaine@FPIW.org.

Stand with FPIW as we fight to preserve free speech for all.

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