Opinion: Cartoons Are "No Laughing Matter"

February 15, 2006

Source: Find Law


On February 15, 2006 Find Law ran an opinion piece by Ruti Teitel, Ernst Stiefel Professor of Comparative Law at New York Law School, about the debate over the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. Teitel writes, "The French newspaper is not the only one taking a "free speech" perspective here: Many have taken a similar view - often invoking the American First Amendment. But taking a closer look at European - not American - free speech views, which are obviously more relevant here, leads to a different, and more nuanced analysis... First, whereas in America, free speech doctrine is largely libertarian, free speech doctrine in Europe is far more protective of communitarian values - such as preventing social unrest, and promoting societal inclusiveness and anti-discrimination values.

In the United States, rights are framed in a radically individualist fashion -- with is a commitment to keeping the public sphere to the greatest extent possible, free of regulation. But unlike the United States Constitution, the European Convention and postwar European Constitutions make references to collective - not individual -- goals.

Thus, while it might be obvious, in libertarian America, that the balance should be struck in the cartoonist's and newspaper's favor, that is much less obvious in communitarian Europe - where the point of view of the offended audience would be taken far more seriously... Second, 'hate speech' - First-Amendment-protected in America, except in rare cases - is often deemed outright illegal in Europe.

Throughout Europe, there is legislation specifically limiting speech, including speech denying the Holocaust. For example, Germany, France, and Austria, all have such legislation.

Denmark, too, has related anti-hate legislation: Its law penalizes expressions that threaten, deride or degrade on the grounds of race, color, national or ethnic origin, belief or sexual orientation."