Wilders: Liberty, if it means anything …

I’m no fan of Geert Wilders but I’m inclined to think it’s a good thing he was acquitted of the hate speech charges against him.  In this piece Ubaldus de Vries implies that the decision should have gone the other way:

The feeding of this fear is an attempt to increase the existing polarisation and segregation of Dutch society, potentially leading to banlieue-type unrest. Unless we all start realising the futility of the attempt – and the court should have given just such a signal.

But I’m not convinced that convicting Wilders would have improved this situation – I’m sure it wouldn’t have lost him any supporters and might have gained him a few.

Wilders’ statements about Islam – comparing the Qur’an to Mein Kampf – are highly offensive, and it is hard to argue that Fitna might not (indirectly) incite violence and hatred against Muslims, not just hostility to Islam, particularly as Wilders promotes policies which clearly do discriminate against Muslims.  He wants to stop mosques being built, halt Muslim immigration and impose a tax on headscarves.

Although just reminding myself about Wilders’ views and statements almost makes me wish he hadn’t been let off, it’s important to uphold the right to freedom of speech, while recognizing that that right should not be unlimited and that it is sometimes very difficult to know quite where the line should be drawn.  This seems a weak argument against the legal decision.

Gerard Spong, one of the first people to accuse Wilders of incitement to hatred, was disappointed. “We are thinking of going to the European Court,” he said. “I think Wilders went too far. I was surprised and shocked when he said at the end of the trial that he had meant to be rude and insulting. That is an admission in itself.”

Being rude and insulting may not be very nice, but shouldn’t be banned.  Many kinds of discourse could be taken as indirect incitement to violence but you don’t have to be an extreme libertarian to want to set the barrier for incitement pretty high.

Because I find it hard to think about how the limits for freedom of speech should be set in the abstract, I often find myself focusing instead on the need for consistency.  Exactly where you draw the line seems almost less important than making sure you treat all kinds of speech – hate speech for example – the same way.  So I find myself comparing this case with that of Bongani Masuku who was found guilty of hate speech against South Africa’s Jewish community.

I’m not sure what to make of that parallel, but the main reason I have quite often invoked the ruling against Masuku is because it’s a useful shorthand for communicating why I don’t think he should have been invited to speak at the UCU – and, in the unlikely event the UCU asked Wilders to speak, I’d be equally opposed to that invitation.