Illustration by Sébastien Thibault
By Naomi Wolf
After the Charlie Hebdo shootings, heads of state marched abreast in Paris in symbolic defence of France’s long tradition of freedom of speech. This seemed reassuring. But that image was what political consultants calloptics – for democracies around the world have recently seen a striking wave of anti-speech legislation.
Amid national mourning over the deaths of the Charlie Hebdo staff – including five cartoonists – four French police officers arrested the cartoonist Zeon for “incitement”, identifying as the cause of arrest anti-Zionist or antisemitic cartoons.
A law in Canada recasts antisemitism so it can include criticism of Israel, and declares that freedom of speech should not be “abused”; supporters cite freedom of speech on campuses as an antisemitic threat that the law should target.
In Britain the Tories have been fighting for months to introduce a bill to ban “extremists” from UK campuses; a recent iteration casts UK colleges as monitors of “acceptable” speech.
In Australia a new bill mirrors parts of America’s Patriot Act. “Extremist” groups face social media bans in Britain, and the same push is mirrored in democracies around the world. The US National Defence Authorisation Act criminalises speech it sees as offering “material support” to terror groups, without defining what that might be. (Obama’s lawyers confirmed that the journalist Chris Hedges could be arrested under the NDAA for interviewing a terrorist.) Since terror threats are always invoked in these campaigns to justify banning certain kinds of speech, the public in all these countries has been largely passive. Surely, after one terrorist atrocity after another, stamping out the freedom to express “extremist” ideas on college campuses and online is a small price to pay for safety?
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