Sometimes it is difficult to explain why freedom of speech is so important. Why should someone say something that might cause offense or upset? Surely it is better to restrict dangerous words in the same way you would restrict dangerous behavior? The problem with this stance is severalfold. Once you start proscribing objectionable words or statements, more restrictions will surely follow. These laws, however well meaning, are also powerful tools that are capable of crushing dissent and narrowing the scope of public discourse.
On this issue, it is not always wise to trust the democratic consensus either. History tells us what happens when society places its unwavering trust in a singular established viewpoint. The scientific community, for example, once thought the earth was at the center of the universe. Galileo upended this theory by suggesting that our planet in fact orbits the sun (heliocentrism) – not the other way round (geocentrism). When Galileo questioned some of the astronomical peculiarities written in the Bible, the Catholic Church labeled the physicist a heretic and placed him under house arrest.
As a fundamental right, free speech is not only designed to protect speech that one finds palatable. It is supposed to protect all forms of expression, including statements that many consider untrue, uncomfortable, or distasteful. But governments throughout the West are now eschewing these principles in favor of punitive hate speech laws. And while these basic freedoms were easily lost, they may not be so easy to win back.
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10 Promoting an Anti-Lockdown Protest
The police in Victoria, Australia, recently arrested a pregnant woman for promoting an anti-lockdown protest on Facebook. The state of Victoria has spent months in lockdown trying to stem the coronavirus outbreak, with restrictions placed on travel, face coverings, business opening times, and religious gatherings. Back in September, the authorities once again extended Victoria’s state of emergency, meaning residents could face another 18 months of restrictions.
The arrestee, Zoe-Lee Buhler, was presented with a search warrant and quickly arrested. At the time, Victorians had been issued with a stay-at-home order and told to avoid public gatherings. One of the officers explains that the arrest is in relation to a Facebook post. The 28-year-old, still in her pajamas, offers to delete the offending message. “I’m happy to delete the post. This is ridiculous”. The cops continue with the arrest, accusing Buhler of incitement. “But my two kids are here, [and] I have an ultrasound in an hour. Like, I’m happy to delete the post.”
An officer then talks about seizing Buhler’s computers and mobile phones, prompting the woman to burst into tears. The footage ends after the cops seize the mobile phone that her partner was using to record the incident. Buhler looks set to appear at Ballarat Magistrates Court in January 2021. She remains on bail.
9 Dancing in front of a Federal Monument
An unusual precedent was set in 2008 after the U.S. Park Police arrested a D.C. woman for dancing in front of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. Brooke Oberwetter, as part of a flash mob of libertarians, put on a pair of headphones and silently danced the night away. The organizers claimed the midnight spectacle was a celebration of the Founding Father’s birthday (April 13). One disgruntled cop was not amused, however, and told the group to disburse. When Oberwetter protested, the officer arrested her for disorderly conduct. She was detained for five hours. Several days later, the police accused the 28-year-old of “demonstrating without a permit.”
Although the charges were later dropped, Oberwetter attempted to sue the U.S. Park Service for trampling on her protected freedoms. The courts disagreed with her assessment. At the D.C. Court of Appeals, Judge Thomas B. Griffith explained: “the conduct is nonetheless prohibited because it stands out as a type of performance, creating its own center of attention and distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration that the Regulations are designed to preserve.”
Many civil rights campaigners took exception to the ruling. In 2011, a bunch of activists put on another silent dance at the memorial site. The U.S. Park Police quickly sprung into action, hurling protestors to the ground before placing them in cuffs. One man was body-slammed and choked. “This is your last warning,” shouted the arresting officer as the man lay spread-eagle on the floor. The Park Police Internal Affairs conducted an investigation into the incident, concluding “[T]he level of force used was in compliance with established legal precedence and the department’s use of force policy.”
8 Comparing a Politician to a Nazi (and Thatcher)
A man from Kilmarnock, Scotland, was recently arrested for comparing the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) to a Nazi. In August, Brian Smith e-mailed the First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to let her know that he was unable to attend his uncle’s funeral because of the recent Covid restrictions. As part of an expletive-laden rant, the grieving constituent compared Sturgeon to the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He then included a mock image of Sturgeon dressed in Nazi attire. “Nazi German lover, sieg heil,” read the caption. Another e-mail referred to the SNP as a party of “nose pickers.”
Although the First Minister did not have the pleasure of reading Mr. Smith’s correspondence, a staffer at the Scottish Parliament did. The worker felt the e-mails were sinister enough to warrant the attention of the police. “The content was considered to be beyond what could be described as reasonable and acceptable criticism,” explained a source familiar with the incident. The 44-year-old, now charged with a telecommunications offence, is due to appear at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court.
But the tale doesn’t end there. An insulting banner of Sturgeon also appeared near the First Minister’s official residence, Bute House. “Herr Sturgeon for fuhrer,” the banner proclaimed. “Ve vill keep Scotland in Lochdown until ze UK gives ME vot I vont!!!” A Hitler-style tache was photoshopped onto the politician’s upper lip. The incident is currently under investigation.
7 Drawing Unflattering Cartoons of Royalty
When the satirical magazine El Jueves published an obscene cartoon of the Spanish Crown Prince, court action was all but inevitable. Guillermo Torres drew a picture of Prince Felipe VI, now the King of Spain, in a sexually compromising position with his wife. The magazine’s cartoon editor, Manel Fontdevila, added the caption: “Have you realised that if you get pregnant… this will be the nearest thing to work I’ve done in my life!”
Spain has strict laws against slandering or defaming members of the royal family, an offence that is punishable by up to 20 months in prison. A Spanish judge ordered the nationwide removal of the magazine edition from newsstands. The police hunted down those responsible for the doodle and confiscated the company’s printing blocks. In court, the judge ordered Torres and Fontdevila to pay over $3,500 each for insulting the crown, “in the most gratuitous and unnecessary way.”
The magazine subsequently published another cartoon, depicting the prince as a bumble bee and his wife as a blossoming flower. It was captioned, “This is the front page we meant to print!” The Constitutional Court of Spain refused to entertain the magazine’s attempts to appeal the sentence.
6 Calling Scientology a Cult
In 2008, a British teenager was arrested for holding up a sign that read, “Scientology is not a religion, it is a dangerous cult” outside the Church of Scientology headquarters in London. Despite the officers’ repeated warnings, the youngster refused to relinquish his placard. He was then handed a summons for inciting religious hatred and using words that were “threatening, abusive or insulting.”
The 15-year-old sought legal advice online and asked if he needed a solicitor. “If I do have to get one, it’ll have to come out of my pocket money,” he said. The case was only dropped after the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) reviewed the case, concluding the remarks were not abusive or threatening.
In 2006, it was discovered that more than 20 City of London Police officers had been accepting gifts from the church. Some officers had attended a charity dinner with one of the institution’s most famous members, Tom Cruise. The church allegedly groomed the force in the run-up to the opening of its £24 million headquarters.
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5 Protesting Against a Free Speech Violation
In 2018, Michael Friend was arrested for holding up a sign that warned motorists about a police trap in Stamford, Connecticut. The cops were attempting to catch people who were using their mobile phones while driving. The 45-year-old was arrested and put in a police cell for several hours. He eventually ended up in Connecticut Superior Court on charges of interfering with police activities.
One of Friend’s accomplices, Michael Picard, decided to protest against the arrest. Standing outside the local police department, Picard held aloft a sign that read “F—k Free Speech – Stamford PD.” Predictably, Picard received similar treatment. Police Chief Jonathan Fontneau arrested the activist on suspicion of breaching the peace and escorted him into the station. He was later slapped with a misdemeanor charge for interfering with police activity.
Picard was also arrested for warning motorists of another police checkpoint in 2015. On that occasion, the police confiscated the man’s mobile phone but failed to realize that it was still recording. A group of crooked cops are caught on camera cooking up a series of false charges. “Have that Hartford Lieutenant call me. I want to see if he’s got any grudges,” said one officer. Although the ACLU successfully sued the Connecticut State Police for $50,000, an Internal Affairs investigation concluded the police had done nothing wrong.
4 Not Holding a Handrail
In 2009, Bela Kosoian stepped onto an escalator at a metro station in Quebec – a small act that had big consequences. Kosoian did not hold onto the handrail, as she was too busy looking through her handbag for some money to buy a train ticket. A local cop instructed the woman to grab the handrail, pointing to a pictogram of the rules in action. She refused. The police moved with great haste, handcuffing the woman and searching through her belongings. She was then hit with several fines – one for not holding the handrail, the other for refusing to provide her details.
You might think this is just one officious cop on a power trip. You would be wrong. Kosoian spent almost a decade trying to find justice. Following her acquittal in 2012, she attempted to sue the subway operator, the City of Laval, and the arresting officer. Both Quebec court and the Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit, claiming Kosoian was the “author of her own misfortune.” One judge described her behavior that day as “inconceivable, irresponsible and contrary to the basic rules of good citizenship of our society.”
In 2019, the woman’s case went to the Supreme Court. The judges concluded that adherence to the sign was not a legal requirement but merely a recommendation. The arresting officer and the subway operator were forced to pay damages of $10,000 each. “In a free and democratic society, police officers can’t interfere with people’s freedoms except where the law says so,” the court concluded.
3 Giving the Virgin Mary a Rainbow Halo
Poland’s blasphemy laws are still in effect to this day. Several high-profile cases have led to the arrest of Polish citizens for offending the religious sensibilities of their fellow compatriots. In 2019, a woman from the city of Plock, Elzbieta Podlesna, was arrested for distributing gay-themed posters of Our Lady of Czestochowa. The iconic figure was shown with a rainbow-colored halo, mirroring that of the gay flag.
Podlesna, a 51-year-old hospital worker, was immediately arrested and charged with offending religious feelings. The authorities confiscated the woman’s posters and seized all of her electronic devices, including old floppy disks. In responding to news of the arrest, the Interior Minister had this to say on Twitter: “All that nonsense about freedom and ‘tolerance’ does not give ANYONE the right to insult the feelings of the faithful.” If convicted, Podlesna and her accomplices could receive a spell in prison of up to two years.
2 Insulting Muhammad
As part of a lecture series, entitled “Basic Information on Islam,” an Austrian woman spoke about Muhammad’s romantic relationship with a young girl called Aisha, the daughter of Islam’s first caliph. As the man had allegedly consummated the couple’s marriage when Aisha was nine years of age, the lecturer strongly implied that he was a child molester. This contention did not sit well with a journalist in the audience, who sent a recording of the speech to the authorities. The woman, Elisabeth Sabaditsch-Wolff, was soon convicted of insulting religious beliefs. The case was taken to the Vienna Court of Appeals in 2011, but the conviction was upheld. She was given a simple choice: pay a fine or go to prison for 60 days.
As Austria is a member of the European Union, Sabaditsch-Wolff decided to take the matter to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg. A panel of judges sided with the Austrian authorities, claiming Sabaditsch-Wolff’s principle aim was to demonstrate “that Muhammad was not a worthy subject of worship.” The ruling continued: “Presenting objects of religious worship in a provocative way capable of hurting the feelings of the followers of that religion could be conceived as a malicious violation of the spirit of tolerance, which was one of the bases of a democratic society.”
The ECHR argued that Sabaditsch-Wolff had not provided sufficient evidence or context to support her argument. The judges agreed with Austria’s courts that the right to free speech had to be balanced against the need to preserve the peace and protect religious feelings.
1 Playing Pokemon Go in a Church
A Russian law student recently found himself in hot water after playing Pokemon Go in an Orthodox church. The authorities had previously warned church-goers that they could face legal action for playing video games in places of worship. In 2016, Ruslan Sokolovsky decided to test that threat. “Who could get offended if you’re just walking around with your smartphone in a church?” the 21-year-old asked as he entered a holy building in Yekaterinburg.
He then posted the footage on YouTube. The Russian Interior Ministry quickly got wind of the video and dispatched officers from the Center for Combating Extremism. The police arrested Sokolovsky, searched his apartment, and seized all of his recording equipment. He was then placed under house arrest, on suspicion of insulting religious feelings in a place of worship, and banned from accessing the internet.
In 2017, Sokolovsky was given a three-and-a-half-year suspended sentence for the stunt. The courts also found that he had uploaded other blasphemous content, including videos that sought to portray Jesus as a fictional character.
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