In 2004, the French parliament adopted anti-hate speech legislation which provided for year-long jail terms for anyone found guilty of insulting women, lesbian or het, or gay men. The law put anti-gay and sexist comments on an equal footing with racist or anti-semitic insults, allowing French courts to hand down fines of up to €45,000 ($60,750) and jail sentences of up to 12 months for “defamation or incitement to discrimination, hatred or violence on the grounds of a person’s sex or sexual orientation”.
Anti-woman/gay insults, including any remarks “of a more general nature tending to denigrate homosexuals as a whole”, in public — meaning on air, in print or at a public meeting — were made to be imprisonable offenses, while private sexist or homophobic taunts between individuals could incur fines of up to €375 (about $500).
French feminist, lesbian and gay rights groups welcomed the law which was a response to significant increases in verbal and physical attacks recorded against women, lesbians and gay men in France. The feminist group Les Chiennes de Garde, or Guard Bitches, is reported to have stated when the law was passed that its members hoped the law would would lead to fewer physical attacks on women “by first outlawing verbal violence”.
In response to concerns that the law would have a chilling effect on journalistic free speech and freedom of religion, ” François Cordier, a Paris public prosecutor, said:
“We will have to try to preserve the freedom of expression while respecting the law. Day to day insults …must be punished, as must incitement to violence, hatred, discrimination. But we cannot deny every monotheistic religion an opinion on homosexuality. The courts will have somehow to draw a line between opinions that might be shocking but must be allowed to be expressed in a democracy, and speech that is undeniably homophobic.”
This past January, a conservative member of France’s ruling party, Christian Vanneste, was fined almost $4,000, plus $2,000 in court fees, for stating that “homosexual behaviour endangers the survival of humanity” and that “heterosexuality is morally superior to homosexuality.” This marked the first conviction of a public official under the new law. Vanneste also had to pay for publication of the verdict in the leftist Parisian newspaper Le Monde, the regional Lille daily La Voix du Nord, and the weekly magazine L’Express.
What I like about this law, among other things, is the way it recognizes and even requires that a society interested in justice and full civil and human rights for all of its citizens do the difficult work involved in distinguishing speech which targets and attacks oppressed minorities from speech which is personal opinion or religious conviction. The sentiment in the United States most often seems to be that since it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish speech targeting oppressed or marginalized groups from speech which honestly expresses an opinion or religious belief, nobody, including the courts, should have to bother. The right to utter hate speech, in other words, is believed to be more important than the rights of those harmed by hate speech.
Another thing I like about this legislation is the way it recognizes that it is speech which targets specific oppressed or marginalized groups — women, gay men — which constitutes “hate speech,” and for which legal remedies ought to exist, not any old speech directed against anyone, to include those who hold the power in a society. You ought to see all the (spammed) comments I have from white American males who stupidly insist that challenges to white male power, privilege, and dominance are somehow on a par with “racism” or “sexism.” Legislation like this might shut them up for a bit, at least.
This kind of legislation could be used against the Imuses, Howard Sterns, Rush Limbaughs, Larry Flynts, professional basketball players who don’t want gay men on their team, and other male sexists of the world by those targeted and harmed by their attacks and lies. The French legislation created a tribunal to assist those targeted by sexism and lesbo/homophobia, and Vanneste’s fines were the result of his being sued under the legislation by three gay/lesbian rights groups. If pornography were included as hate speech under such a law, things might actually begin to change for women.