EU Official’s Remarks About Hate Speech Laws Coming to America ‘Very Chilling,’ Free Speech Advocate Says

EU Official’s Remarks About Hate Speech Laws Coming to America ‘Very Chilling,’ Free Speech Advocate Says
European Union flags flutter outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels on June 17, 2022. (Yves Herman/Reuters)
Michael Washburn
News Analysis

Recent remarks by Věra Jourová, the European Commission’s Vice President for Values and Transparency, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, addressing online speech, the status of Twitter, and what Jourová sees as the likely advent of laws proscribing “hate speech” in the United States, show either an ignorance of or contempt for American traditions and legal precedent upholding freedom of expression, a free speech advocate has told The Epoch Times.

During a panel discussion at the annual event on Jan. 17, Jourová predicted that “hate speech” will soon be subject to criminal penalties in the United States, as it currently is in a number of European countries. She did not offer a clear and precise definition of what does or does not constitute such speech.

“Well, we need the people who understand the language and the case law in the country, because what qualifies as hate speech, as illegal hate speech, which you will have soon also in the U.S., I think that we have a strong reason why we have this in the criminal law,” Jourová said.

Jourová referred to laws in place in the European Union (E.U.) that criminalize speech if it is perceived to incite hatred and violence based on race, ethnicity, religion, and/or national origin. These prohibitions are codified in a wide Framework Decision whose stated purpose “is to ensure that certain serious manifestations of racism and xenophobia are punishable by effective, proportionate and dissuasive criminal penalties throughout the European Union.” The statute also contains provisions that prohibit “publicly condoning, denying or grossly trivializing crimes of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.”
In the course of a separate interview with Euronews Next on Jan. 18, Jourová criticized Twitter CEO Elon Musk for bringing “freedom of speech absolutism” to the popular online platform over which he assumed control in a $44 billion deal that closed in October 2022.

“After Mr. Musk took over the Twitter [sic] with his freedom of speech absolutism, we are the protectors of freedom of speech as well. But at the same time, we cannot accept, for instance, the illegal content online, and so on, so our message was clear: we have the rules, which have to be complied with, and otherwise there will be sanctions,” Jourová commented.

European Regulators have been in conflict with Musk since his takeover of Twitter, sounding alarms about the severe consequences he will face for failing to bring the platform into full compliance with the E.U.’s new Digital Services Act which went into effect in November.

“I think that the confidence has been weakened. And I had quite a high level of confidence when it comes to Twitter. I have to say that we worked with knowledgeable people, with the lawyers, with the sociologists, who understood that they have to behave in some decent way, not to cause really big harm to the society,” Jourová said.

“I always felt that this notion of responsibility was there. So this is what I don’t feel from Elon Musk personally. But we will see.”

Clash of Cultures

In making these comments, Jourová called for an increased state oversight of speech more consistent with dictatorships than with a government operating within American constitutional norms, and also seemed to suggest that the United States needs to catch up with the European Union, implying a fundamental cultural and political backwardness on the part of America vis à vis the nations of Europe.

That’s the view of Cherise Trump, executive director of Speech First, a Washington-based free speech advocacy group, who questioned both the specific points made in Jourová’s Davos interviews and the assumptions undergirding them.

“It’s very chilling to hear members of the European Union talk about hate speech laws that are coming to the United States, as if they know something that we don’t,” Trump told The Epoch Times.

Courts in the United States have consistently ruled out any “hate speech” exclusion to the protections that the First Amendment grants to free speech and assembly, Trump said, referring to recent Supreme Court cases such as Mahanoy Area School District v. B.L., in which the justices came down in favor of speech that some deemed offensive.

There are no universal definitions of what is provocative or offensive, in the absence of such legal protections for controversial speech, any form of speech that people did not like for one reason or another would end up being subject to censorship, very much including political speech, Trump argued.

“There’s a long legal history in this country upholding that there’s no ‘hate speech’ exemption to the First Amendment, which comes down to the logical reason that no one can tell you what defines hate speech. You can’t really create laws around stuff like that. If you can do so, to silence people you disagree with, that’s a direct violation of the law,” said Trump.

For a member of a European government to suggest that the constitutionally protected status of controversial speech is wrong and is on the way out shows a degree of presumptiveness not supported by the historical record or the status of political freedoms in Europe as compared to America, she contended.

“Why are we looking to them to give us any kind of guidance on this issue? Why do they think they have any kind of authority to tell us how to operate? We have a completely different culture than they do. We have a very liberal free speech clause in our Constitution,” Trump continued.

“The United States puts limits on the laws that the government can enforce and what laws the government can put on. When [European officials] think about their legal system, they’re thinking about how they can regulate and keep people in line. I find it really disturbing that the E.U. is trying to influence our legal system,” she added.

The influence that a figure such as Jourová wields on this issue stems from an admiration for Europe that manifests itself often in political discussion, as when people compare criminal justice policies or social and environmental policies in Europe to those in America, Trump observed. Trump called this admiration “weird.”

“They’re not any better off than we are. We’re far ahead of the curve when it comes to Western Europe and Canada. Why is there this weird authority, when they’re actually the ones who were run by tyrants for a majority of their histories, and they are still learning, as young democracies? When you read the language of their laws around speech, it does echo back [to the repressive past]. It’s a strange way to write your laws,” Trump said.

The Epoch Times has reached out to Jourová’s office for comment.

Michael Washburn is a New York-based reporter who covers U.S. and China-related topics for The Epoch Times. He has a background in legal and financial journalism, and also writes about arts and culture. Additionally, he is the host of the weekly podcast Reading the Globe. His books include “The Uprooted and Other Stories,” “When We're Grownups,” and “Stranger, Stranger.”
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