The Weapons That Are Words

With the continuing spread of Islamic terrorism in Western countries, some European nations have placed new limits on political and hate speech, and are enforcing existing laws with more determination than in the past. That has some civil liberties groups and legal experts alarmed.

Although freedom of expression is recognized as a human right under article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, like all legislated rights, free speech is subject to a host of limitations. Governments — even the government of the United States, where speech is protected beyond the degree it is in most other countries — restrict speech for any of a number of reasons, including libel, slander, obscenity, sedition, incitement, “fighting words,” classified information, copyright violation, trade secrets, non-disclosure agreements, the right to privacy, the right to be forgotten, public security, public order, public nuisance, campaign finance reform and oppression.

Some European countries have longstanding and particularly strict limits on political and hate speech. Denying the Holocaust, for example, can be — and has been — prosecuted in Germany and France. In Spain, expressing support for the Basque separatist group ETA, which is responsible for the deaths of many hundreds of Spaniards, is likewise illegal.

Last year, however, the conservative government of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy overhauled and strengthened the anti-terror law, with Islamic terrorism added as a target.

According to Joaquim Bosch, a spokesman for a human rights group, Judges for Democracy, the tightening and expansion of the Spanish law is “the latest very serious attack on freedom of expression.” Mr. Bosch denounced such laws as “the politicization of terrorism.”

In November 2014, taking note of increased homegrown Islamist radicalization, France reinforced its own anti-terrorism law, toughening penalties for making statements praising or inciting terrorism.

And in the wake of the January, 2015 attacks on Paris, French authorities have aggressively moved to enforce that law. Criticism has been aimed at French law enforcement for convicting people who made provocative statements that were judged to run afoul of the statute.

Social media postings have also led to the posters’ prosecutions, and those prosecutions have, in turn, come under fire from human rights groups. In January, two people received prison sentences in Britain for posting threatening messages against a feminist campaigner. And the same month, a federal judge in the U.S. sentenced a man to 16 months in prison for threatening on social media to kill President Obama. In Denmark recently, a man who filmed himself burning the Koran and uploaded the clip on social media was charged with violating a hate-speech ban. Human rights and libertarian groups have denounced such prosecutions, considering them violations of free expression.

Western society’s protections of expression are well-intentioned and, generally, healthy for society. And “human rights” activists may see themselves acting in defense of a high ideal. But believing Jews know that the Torah considers unfettered speech to be anything but “protected.” Prohibitions that involve speech are many, and, in Jewish thought, words are considered to be weapons in and of themselves. Wielding them against others constitutes assault, and using them to foment physical violence directly abets that violence itself.

It would be unrealistic, of course, to expect larger society to accept, even in principle, the Torah’s attitude toward speech — namely, that it is not a right but a responsibility. It shouldn’t be unrealistic, however, to expect governments to recognize the clear and present danger posed by determined groups that are pledged to incite hatred, commit mass murder and overthrow legitimate governments.

And dealing with the danger posed by such groups — Islamist or otherwise — requires clear actions to prevent their growth. And that includes efforts to thwart such groups’ attempts to capture the impressionable minds of disaffected, muddled youths, their prime targets for recruitment.

Recent decades’ technological advances have made the weapons that are words more powerful than ever. The reach of evil people now extends to every corner of the world, and the means of reaching the similar-minded and impressionable have increased many times over. The awakening of evil across the globe is facilitated in an unprecedented way by words, no longer relegated to paper or place. It is now easier than ever to fan smoldering malevolence into flame.

In the Torah’s view, there is no automatic right to free speech. But even in entirely secular eyes, the right to expression created by societies is not unfettered. And fettering potentially terrorist incitement should not be seen as an extraordinary measure — particularly in these extraordinary times.

At the same time, we must bear in mind that this is a delicate balancing act.

What are the perfectly legitimate, long held, religious beliefs of many, may be considered nothing less than “hate speech” by some on the extreme left. Clearly, any regulation that is part of the battle against terrorism that possibly infringes on free speech must be carefully construed so it should accomplish only its desired purpose, and not impugn the legitimate rights of ordinary, peaceful citizens.