Geert Wilders is a member of the Dutch Parliament and a documentary film producer; not exactly the person one would expect to find on the front line in the battle against both radical Islam and the Islamist assault on free speech. Yet, that is where the 45 year-old founder of the Party for Freedom stands. Wilders, by posting the infamous Danish cartoons of Muhammad on his website and producing a short film titled Fitna, has stirred international controversy that has prompted boycotts of Dutch products, condemnation by the UN Secretary General, constant death threats, and civil and criminal prosecution. Americans, especially politicians on the Left, should take notice.
Fitna features graphic images of terrorist attacks and quotes radical Imams and Koranic Suras used to justify terrorism. In response to the film, Wilders’ own government, at the behest of an angry Muslim population, investigated whether he violated any “hate speech” laws but ultimately declined to prosecute him. However, the Jordanian government is prosecuting Wilders, along with 12 other Europeans, for blasphemy against Islam and requesting that Wilders be extradited to Jordan to stand trial. If convicted in Jordan, Wilders could be sentenced to death.
Of course, the experience of Geert Wilders and those like him, says much about radical Islam and the threats it poses to free societies. However, it says something, perhaps nearly as frightening, about what Western societies are doing to themselves. Natan Sharansky, who spent years in the Soviet gulags and knows something about freedom, defined a free society in The Case for Democracy as one in which “people have a right to express their views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm.” By that definition, democracies all across the world are in jeopardy.
In much of Western Europe, where multiculturalism seems to be the official language, “hate speech” laws suppress candid discourse. Liability potentially awaits anyone whose views offend others. The Council of Europe’s website even states that “In multicultural societies it is often necessary to reconcile freedom of expression and freedom of thought, conscience and religion. In some instances, it may also be necessary to place restrictions on these freedoms.”
People who are offended by what a critic or commentator writes about them have started suing in countries with restrictive speech laws, in a means of forum shopping known as “libel tourism.” Deterred from pursuing libel cases in countries like the United States where legal standards are higher and free speech protections greater, these plaintiffs force authors to incur the expense of mounting a legal response or risk defaulting in a foreign jurisdiction.
There are also disturbing signs that free speech in America will become less protected and more regulated in the near future, especially with the reality of large Democratic majorities in Congress and a Barack Obama presidency looming. The most publicized example is reenactment of the Fairness Doctrine, which requires broadcasters to devote equal time to both sides of controversial issues. Paternalism aside, the Doctrine would cause an explosion of regulation and litigation and would effectively be used to destroy conservative talk radio and possibly FOX News. Members of Congress, mostly Democrats, have also suggested imposing “neutrality” requirements on the Internet, which could lead to content regulation of websites, including blogs.
The left no longer seems bashful about regulating free speech for political gain, and when I asked Wilders whether the prospect of a Democratic government could have profound implications for free speech rights in America, he coyly stated, “I know who I would vote for and it wouldn’t start with an ‘O.'” In fact, Barack Obama’s campaign, which raised and spent more money than any presidential campaign in history, has wielded the threats of libel suits and government investigations as a sword to quiet critics.
As the late Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, hardly a conservative, once said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” The way best to ensure such sunlight is to protect free speech, even the hateful, offensive kind, because ultimately, the free marketplace of ideas is the best regulator of all.
When Geert Wilders recently spoke at a lunch in New York hosted by the Legal Project at the Middle East Forum, an organization dedicated to protecting free speech rights, he said that “America is the last man standing.” It was not quite clear whether he was referring to our willingness to combat radical Islam or to guard against the encroachment of free speech rights. It turns out that true freedom requires commitment to both.