For years, we have discussed the unrelenting attacks on free speech in Europe with the expansion of hate speech laws and the general criminalization of speech, including international speech crimes. Some in the United States would like to follow down that dangerous path (and universities are reinforcing the view of the need to regulate speech). The implications of such anti-speech policies are evident in Germany where a survey, conducted by the Institut für Demoskopie Allensbach (and published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) found that only 18 percent of Germans feel free to express their views in public. It is the most vivid example of how Europeans are learning to live without free speech. Undeterred, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the successor to Angela Merkel, is now calling on greater limits on free speech during election periods — a concept that would normally be viewed as counterintuitive outside of the new European model.
Notably, over 31 percent of Germans did not even feel free expressing themselves in private among friends. Just 17 percent felt free to express themselves on the Internet, and 35 percent said that freedom to speech is confined to the smallest of private circles.
Even at the height of the Stasi, citizens were not nearly as controlled in East Germany. It is the irony of our times. It has been otherwise liberal governments that have succeeded where authoritarian regimes failed in getting people to give up their free speech rights. All in the name of fighting intolerance . . . by codifying intolerance to an ever-expanding range of speech.
Over the course of the last 50 years, the French, English and Germans have waged an open war on free speech by criminalizing speech deemed insulting, harassing or intimidating. We have previously discussed the alarming rollback on free speech rights in the West, (here and here and here and here and here and here and here) and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). There are encroachments appearing in the United States, particularly on college campuses. Notably, the media celebrated the speech of French President Emmanuel Macron before Congress where he called on the United States to follow the model of Europe on hate speech.
I readily admit to following the classic liberal view of free speech. The solution to bad speech — even hateful speech — is more speech. It is free speech that allows people of conscience to contest the flawed and hateful ideas of bigots. Germany has proven the fallacy of changing minds through threatened prosecution. While I am certainly sympathetic to the Germans in seeking to end the scourge of fascism, I have long been a critic of the German laws prohibiting certain symbols and phrases, I view it as not just a violation of free speech but a futile effort to stamp out extremism by barring certain symbols. Instead, extremists have rallied around an underground culture and embraced symbols that closely resemble those banned by the government. I fail to see how arresting a man for a Hitler ringtone is achieving a meaningful level of deterrence, even if you ignore the free speech implications.
We recently discussed how Germany is extending its criminalization of speech to the Internet. Germany imposed a legal regime that would allow fining social networks such as Facebook up to 500,000 euros ($522,000) for each day the platform leaves a “fake news” story up without deleting it. Governments have finally found a vehicle to get citizens to allow them to curtail or chill speech — ironically in the name of facilitating “real news” or “truth.” It is perfectly Orwellian and Merkel’s latest contribution to the erosion of free speech in the West.
The view of Germans that they are living without free speech would be of little surprise. What is most disconcerting is that they seem to reconciled to living without this basic human right.