John Leo

     In truth, Muslims have been playing the game for some time. Michel Houellebecq, a French novelist, said some derogatory things about the Koran. Muslim groups hauled him into court, but the novelist was eventually exonerated. Actress Brigitte Bardot, an animal rights activist, criticized Muslim ritual slaughter and was fined 10,000 francs for the offense. Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci wrote an angry anti-Muslim book, meant to waken the west to the gravity of the threat posed by Islam. Muslims pressed for her prosecution in France. The case was thrown out of court on a technicality in 2002, but she is scheduled to go on trial again this coming June.

   In Australia, a state tribunal found two pastors guilty of vilification of Muslims. They had argued that Islam is inherently a violent religion, and that Islam plans to take over Australia. To avoid up to a $7000 fine or three months in jail, they were ordered to apologize and to promise not to repeat their remarks anywhere in Australia or over the Internet. The pastors refused to comply and are appealing to the Supreme Court. The case has become a major cause, with churches and Christian leaders fighting to overturn the law, and Muslims pushing for a broad hate-speech law.

      An obvious thing to say about laws that limit speech is that we have no evidence that they work to meet their stated goal-- reducing bigotry and increasing tolerance. Banning Holocaust denial, on grounds that it is inherently anti-Semitic, has no track record of improving respect for Jews. If anything, hatred of Jews appears to be on the rise in these nations.  Setting up certain groups as beyond criticism is bound to increase resentment among those not similarly favored. (Yes, we know all groups are supposed to be treated alike, but that is not the way these laws work.). In real life, the creation of protected classes sharpens intergroup tensions and leads to competition for victim status.

      An even more obvious point: We are very lucky to have the First Amendment. Without it, our chattering classes would be falling all over themselves to ban speech that offends sensitive groups, just like many Eurochatterers are doing now. We know this because our campus speech codes, the models for the disastrous hate-speech laws in Europe, Canada and Australia, were the inventions of our own elites. Without a First Amendment, the distortions and suppressions of campus life would likely have gone national. No more speech codes, please. In America, we get to throw rocks at all ideologies, religious and secular, and we get to debate issues, not have them declared off limits by sensitivity-prone agents of the state.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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