Thursday, November 3, 2016

Freedom of Speech in the Age of New Media and New Publics: France, Europe and Beyond

By Katherine Brown

The French Center of Excellence and the European Union Center at the University of Illinois invited three fantastic speakers for a roundtable discussion on freedom of speech in France and beyond. The roundtable included famous filmmaker and activist Rokhaya Diallo, Director of the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics Jean-Philippe Mathy, and Christian Lequesne of the Science Politique-Centre de Recherches Internationales. All spoke eloquently and at length about freedom of speech in France, mentioning the recent terrorist’s attacks as the beginning of a new dialogue and the ongoing (and very controversial) ‘state of emergency’ throughout France.

The state of emergency was a main point consistently brought up by all three speakers. To the speakers, it appears the state of emergency is another tool by the government in an attempt to censor its people – because the state of emergency has persisted long after the actual emergency ended. The government also faces issues with international companies like Twitter having to adapt to their stricter hate speech laws. Ms. Diallo made a point of mentioning 85% of all global requests to remove hate speech on Twitter comes from France. In one of the most interesting questions of the evening she asked, “How can Twitter decide what is and is not hate speech when they lack the authority to do so?”

Jean-Philippe Mathy and Christian Lequesne also dived into the legality of laws surrounding freedom of speech. Christian Lequesne was quick to point out that criminalization of speech in France has always been hypocritical – noting that while denying the Holocaust is illegal in France, one could openly deny the Armenian Genocide and not be committing a crime. Jean-Philippe mentioned that governments imbed journalists with military instead of letting them roam as a means of censorship, or as he calls it, “damage control”.

French Journalist, Ms. Diallo, firmly believes in allowing people to be held responsible for their words, but also that preventing people from speaking worsens the problems. She believes the alt-right groups which are typically accused of hate speech do well online because they are barred from traditional media sources. Christian Lequesne believes the media can in some circumstances incite terrorism, and that some people (the ‘fragile minded’) can become self-radicalized via social media. Perhaps the solution is to ensure that if a government chooses the stricter route as France does, to follow and enforce the law equally instead of piece meal as they do now? When the law only censors minorities, the government’s legitimacy to enforce the law decreases, and makes issues worse.

It is an interesting topic, and we are probably left with more questions than answers. The censorship of citizens in France and the EU, through the state of emergency, will remain a question, and possibly a point of contention. I realize the implications of these policies as they relate to relations with other countries outside the EU. If EU citizens can be censored, what prevents other countries from doing the same or going even further and banning free speech?

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