Comparing Hate Speech Laws In The U.S. And Abroad

We've reported this week on the anti-Semitic outburst by designer John Galliano in Paris. That outburst could cost him up to six months in prison and some $31,000 in fines if he's convicted. French law allows for the prosecution of "public insults" based on religion, race, ethnicity or national origin. Charles Asher Small — who founded the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism — joins host Melissa Block to talk about the many countries that have similar prohibitions on hate speech.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We've reported this week on the anti-Semitic outburst by designer John Galliano in Paris that cost him his job at Christian Dior. It could cost him more than that - up to six months in prison and some $31,000 in fines if he's convicted. That's because French law allows for the prosecution of public insults based on religion, race, ethnicity or national origin - hate speech, in other words.

In fact, many countries have similar prohibitions on hate speech and Charles Asher Small joins me to talk about this. He founded the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Welcome to the program.

Mr. CHARLES ASHER SMALL (Founder, Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism): Thank you for having me. It's an honor to be here.

BLOCK: Why don't you give us an example of other countries that have hate speech laws that are similar to those we see in France.

Mr. SMALL: Well, I think the hate speech legislation had its founding in the contemporary or modern context. In the aftermath of the Second World War and from the ashes of the Holocaust, countries like Germany, Poland, Hungary, Austria, have passed hate legislation decades ago. And more recently, Canada and Mexico also have laws prohibiting hate speech against targeted, identifiable groups.

BLOCK: And let's look at this most recent example in France. John Galliano is being prosecuted for anti-Semitic statements he made in a bar, some of which were captured on videotape. He said: I love Hitler. People like you would be dead today, your mothers, forefathers would be gassed. How specifically does that violate French law?

Mr. SMALL: Well, according to the European Union, there was a treaty passed in 2008 which specifies that hate speech would be sanctioned and punitive measures could be taken against individuals or groups engaged in hate speech.

BLOCK: And hate speech would not necessarily have to have a threat involved or be inciting a crime in particular.

Mr. SMALL: No, it's speech that advocates genocide or inciting hatred against an identifiable group.

BLOCK: Do you have a sense of how often these crimes, hate speech crimes are prosecuted in these countries?

Mr. SMALL: Well, in 2008, when the European Union decided to pass this legislation, they gave nations in the European Union two years to put in place mechanisms that can actually charge and prosecute offenders. And in countries like the United Kingdom, these laws are just being enacted in the next few months. So this is a relatively new legislation, but countries like Poland, Germany, Austria and Hungary had mechanisms in place before this legislation.

BLOCK: You know, it's interesting to contrast these laws that we're talking about across Europe and in other countries, contrast that with the situation here in the United States. We just had the Supreme Court ruling yesterday that gave strong First Amendment protection to hateful speech, no matter how painful it might be. It seems that the U.S. is really the exception rather than the rule on that.

Mr. SMALL: Yes, it's definitely the exception. And I think it's troubling. In a sense, we've watched the changes that are sweeping through the Middle East and many people credit the Internet, Facebook with sort of spreading the values and democracy and freedom of speech, which is wonderful. At the same time, hate groups are also speaking and their messages are being heard further than they were decades ago.

And, in fact, the United States of America has become the space or the place where hate groups use URLs or create websites based in the United States because they're protected under the First Amendment. And I think this is something that policymakers really need to address. How do you balance First Amendment and the Constitution and yet stop people from harming other people?

BLOCK: I wonder, though, what you would say to people who would argue that if you suppress free speech, if you push this hate speech underground, you don't make it go away and, in fact, you may make it more dangerous because it's not in the public sphere.

Mr. SMALL: I don't think that limitations, say, if you take the case of Canada or the European Union, that it's not Draconian laws where people aren't able to speak freely or to articulate views. We know from the history of anti-Semitism, for example, that anti-Semitism begins with Jews, but it never ends with Jews. That once this hatred is unleashed on society, other marginalized groups become the victims. There is a need to curtail some forms of speech and it's just, how do we make the balance?

BLOCK: Charles Asher Small directs the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. SMALL: Thank you.

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