In the autumn of 2012, French Twitter erupted in a battle of racist jokes and insults. Our judicial system, in its response, has shown itself incompetent, irrelevant, and, moreover, racist. This is why you should be alarmed:
The Courts Are Racist
The surge in racist tweets arrived around October 14th, and was characterized by the spike in popularity of certain hashtags, which allow for easy searching and following of trending topics. The following were among the most prominent: #unbonjuif, #unbonmusulman, #simonfilsestgay, #simafillerameneunnoir, and #prenomdepute, attacking Jews, Muslims, Homosexuals, Blacks, and Women respectively, and they were accompanied by off-color jokes, images, or other offensive content. A number of groups reacted, among them the Union of French Jewish students (UEJF), the Movement Against Racism and for Friendship between Peoples (MRAP), SOS Racisme, and the International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (LICRA), and they brought a lawsuit to identify the authors of tweets using the #unbonjuif, #simonfilsestgay, and #simafillerameneunnoir hashtags.
On January 24th, 2013, Judge Anne-Marie Sauteraud rendered her decision: the UEJF’s demand for the identities of the authors of the #unbonjuif tweets was “legitimate,” but the MRAP’s demand concerning the other two hashtags was not, as the group “wasn’t in a position to act against homophobia” and that the anti-Black tweets weren’t “determined” enough. When our Courts decide to protect groups from hate speech, they do so unevenly and unfairly.
The Courts Have Forgotten Their Jurisdiction
Twitter erased the offending Tweets in January, though this didn’t satisfy the UEJF or the other groups. Sending their demand all the way to California, they insisted that French law requires Twitter to hand over the names of the account owners. Twitter, which runs its service entirely out of California, responded that, as an American company operating in America, they’ll wait for an American court order. The UEJF is now suing Twitter, as well as its CEO Dick Costolo, in a French court for 38.5 million euros, for its refusal to provide IP addresses.
Should a man in his own country who has done nothing but ignore the racist noise of a foreign tribunal be tried in a foreign Court? If a court in North Korea, Sudan, or America subpoenaed us in France, are we obligated to comply?
In April, 2011, The Mariner broke British law by revealing the name of a recipient of their Super-Injunction, all while never leaving France. Should France have sold us out to Britain’s self-purported “universal jurisdiction?” Of course not. Is it fun to break English law? Why, yes.
Hate Speech Cannot Be Defined
What’s funny for one is hurtful to another. So who decides what crosses the line and should be punished? Right now, it’s probably some frustrated pencil-pusher in a windowless office in some high-rise in a banlieu of Paris. Now does he have his own set of values and prejudices? Of course – we all do. Will his judgment vary from one day to another? Obviously. Is he morally superior to you or me? Probably not. So why does he get to choose what I can say, see, hear, and read? He’s all the more likely to defend his own ideology and the power structure he’s a part of, and all the less likely to welcome criticism of it. Sir, you suck!
It’s easy to say that some speech should be criminalized. The problem is that everyone wants to be the one who decides what is acceptable and what is not. Limiting speech only serves to put some people’s interests above others.
I found #unbonamericain on Twitter. It hurt a little, but I’m used to it by now. Rather than call on the state to imprison the author of the Tweet, I try to educate. As blogger Cyrus Farivar put it: “Undesirable speech should be countered with more speech, not censorship.” If I could sue every time I felt hurt or that my human dignity was affronted, I could retire with a single copy of La Dépêche.
France Already Has a Bad Reputation for Internet Surveillance
Just last year, Nicolas Sarkozy proposed a law that would make READING hate-speech a criminal offense. Essentially, if you visited the wrong site more than once, you would have broken the law, never mind if your intentions were scholarly or journalistic. Reporters Without Boarders (RWB) journalist Lucie Morillon reminds us that to technically accomplish this, the French government would have to monitor ALL INTERNET TRAFFIC. RWB, itself a French organization, has included France on it’s “Enemies of the Internet” list since 2011.
Remember also that with encrypted chat and email, Virtual Private Networks, the Tor Network, etc; anyone who truly wants to conceal their communications, (i.e. the real terrorists!) can do so easily.
Laws Against Hate Speech Increase Hate Speech
Following the news of their court victory, Sacha Reingewirtz, Vice-President of the UEJF, had this to say: “We’ve already tweeted the decision. And we see on Twitter that the decision has apparently triggered a new rise of anti-Semitic messages directed at our organization.” So after all that, censoring hurtful speech just incites more of it. All this just makes it worse.
So what now?
The harsh and blurry laws limiting free speech and their reckless and unfair enforcement should be moderated, repaired, or removed from the Penal Code. In an effort to preserve Fraternité, we throw Liberté and Egalité into the wind, and end up losing them all, a little like robbing Peter AND Paul to pay Mary, and then just robbing her too.
Our country should stop its expensive international witch-hunt and look toward actually protecting its citizens’ rights. Only if she treats us as free adults can we hope to treat each other as such.