This seems to be a disturbing development in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings:

France ordered prosecutors around the country to crack down on hate speech, anti-Semitism and those glorifying terrorism…

Authorities said 54 people had been arrested for hate speech and defending terrorism since terror attacks killed 20 people in Paris last week, including three gunmen…

Like many European countries, France has strong laws against hate speech, especially anti-Semitism in the wake of the Holocaust.

The Justice Ministry sent a letter to all French prosecutors and judges urging more aggressive tactics against racist or anti-Semitic speech or acts.

“Speech or acts“—there’s a big, big difference between the two. It is easier to justify criminalizing acts rather than speech—although of course it depends on what the speech is. To be legally actionable, the speech had better be the rough equivalent of yelling “fire” in a crowded auditorium.

Vandalism and violence are acts, as is joining or assisting a designated terrorist organization, and should be actionable. But none of that is mere speech. Freedom of speech means that we protect even speech we find offensive, and it seems contradictory for the French and other Europeans to champion the right of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists to mock Mohammed but to later arrest this man for his jokes.

Ever since I covered the France 2 defamation trials in Paris many years ago (see this), I’ve noticed that the European attitude towards free speech is less free than ours (or at least, than ours used to be). European hate speech laws are one part of that difference.

Of course, it was Europe that experienced the horror of the Holocaust—and in many instances, including that of France, non-German Europeans significantly collaborated in facilitating those horrors. It’s understandable that most Europeans don’t want a repeat. But they are much closer to a repeat right now than the US is, despite the US’s realtive lack of hate speech laws.

[Neo-neocon is a writer with degrees in law and family therapy, who blogs at neo-neocon.]