Few would disagree that disgraced British fashion designer John Galliano was acting like a drug- and alcohol-addled jerk. On two separate occasions at the same Paris bar last October and February, he unleashed anti-Semitic insults and was caught on video saying he loved Hitler. But if Galliano’s tirades were socially disturbing, a French court’s actions last week were legally unsettling: the judge convicted Galliano under criminal hate-speech laws and fined him 6,000 euros (about $8,000) as well as $23,000 in plaintiffs’ court fees. With criminal verdicts like that, France simply gives cover to governments in Latin American countries I cover, like Venezuela and Ecuador, where anti-defamation laws are producing a chilling effect on the media and free speech.
I understand that France, and other European countries like Germany that have hate-speech laws on their books, are being mindful of the racist rhetoric that led to the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust. But I also believe they’re being misguided by pursuing cases like Galliano’s in the criminal rather than civil arena. Whenever you criminalize speech – unless in rare cases when it deliberately incites violence against persons or governments – you intimidate its free exercise, and the nation that gave us Voltaire and Montesquieu ought to know better. As Carlos Lauria of the New York-based non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists told me last year, “There is a growing international consensus that laws that criminalize speech are not compatible with human rights.”
Lauria has a special stake in this matter because he’s the CPJ’s coordinator for the Americas. In Ecuador, for example, new anti-defamation laws pushed through by President Rafael Correa to curb what he calls “corrupt and irresponsible” news outlets – which, not coincidentally, oppose many of his policies – led this past summer to the conviction of journalist Emilio Palacio, sentenced to three years in prison for calling Correa a “dictator” in an editorial. The three co-directors of his newspaper, El Universo, were also convicted and sentenced to three years each. (All four men also face extraordinary $40 million fines; Palacio has since fled to Miami.) Correa has also gone after two investigative journalists who committed “disrespect” against the President by reporting on huge government contracts won by his brother, Fabricio Correa.
In Venezuela, vague “media responsibility” and anti-defamation laws promulgated under socialist President Hugo Chávez have taken aim at anyone who is arbitrarily deemed to have insulted the President or public officials, or to have spread “false information” that “causes public panic.” One of the laws’ most frequent targets is the opposition television network Globovisión, whose admittedly shoddy, hyper-partisan journalism is still no excuse for criminal prosecution. Nevertheless, Chávez’s government most recently went after Globovisión in July for the amorphous crime of “generating panic, uncertainty and disquiet” in its critical coverage of the government’s handling of a prison riot. Similar media intimidation is on the rise in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras and Panama.
The problem regarding the Galliano case is that it’s all too easy for developing countries like Venezuela to hide behind the example of developed countries like France, precisely because the latter are developed. Supporters of the French hate-speech laws will argue that there’s a difference between prosecuting someone for racist invective and prosecuting someone for insulting a head of state – but to diehard supporters of Chávez, the latter can be just as abhorrent and deserving of time behind bars. So if La France, an avatar of liberté, egalité and fraternité, can criminalize speech in defense of what it considers the national good, then so can the Bolivarian Revolution, señor.
But as U.S. legal scholar Jonathon Turley of the George Washington University School of Law in Washington, D.C., noted in his blog post on the Galliano conviction, it’s equally troubling to see developed countries like France behave like developing nations when it comes to curtailing free speech. Wrote Turley: “I find the failure of the French to denounce [prosecutions like Galliano’s] to be distressing given that country’s long and proud history in recognizing basic civil liberties.”
The judge in the Galliano case suspended his $8,000 fine, but that’s not the point. The criminal conviction itself is, most of all because Galliano could have faced prison time – which is not, as experts like Lauria and Turley argue, suitable punishment for slander or libel in the 21st century. Galliano should have been dragged into French civil court and had his derrière sued by the targets of his outburst. His rants had already cost him his plum job at the Christian Dior fashion house, and a civil judgment would have been the appropriate legal resolution. It would have also been the fitting example to set for regions like Latin America.