Is freedom of speech merely an illusion?

There has been a lot of controversy surrounding the notion of ‘freedom of speech’, notoriously in light of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks that occurred two years ago. I will compare recent events in Britain and France to explore whether freedom of speech is merely an illusion in European democracies. I have used British and French examples as I feel together, they are representative of most European countries’ norms and values.

In post-Brexit hysteria, many Britons have not fallen short of their anti-immigration advocacy, especially with the rising popularity of the UKIP party. Anti-immigration is escalating to be a more and more acceptable opinion to voice especially with the growth of islamophobia surrounding the 4 French terror attacks in our neighbouring country in the last 2 years. Many Britons have argued Brexit allowed them, “for the first time”, to have their say and exercise their freedom of speech. When half of the population went against the conservative parties’ state values and voted for Brexit, this demonstrated that freedom of speech does, in fact, exist.

However, one could argue that actually, the conservative party’s state values were outdated and unrepresentative of the majority of Britain. With the rise of national sovereignty and a “You and us” mentality, arguably UKIP ideas have infiltrated into mainstream culture. Although having the choice to voice pro-Brexit opinions went against the conservative parties’ state values at the time, the decision was very much acceptable as it was a popular opinion to voice. Therefore, this suggests one can have freedom of speech but only if they are voicing mainstream culture.

In France, according to French constitution, “nobody should be disturbed on account of his opinions as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established law and order’’. Article 11 follows up, ‘’the free communication and ideas and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of a man. Any citizen can, therefore, publish freely except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by the law.’’ France, seemingly one of the most secular nations in the world, has been pivotal in the freedom of speech debate. The notorious Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine and it is not seen as promoting racial hatred by French law. However, racial hatred when said in person is often illegal. Dieudonné M’bala M’bala a French comedian is often in trouble with the French judicial system due to his racist jokes and has been called out on various grounds such as supporting terrorism and stating the holocaust never occurred.

On 14 April 2016, the Court of Appeal of Paris upheld a conviction on Dieudonné M’bala M’bala inciting racial hatred. This suggests that there is a difference between racism when said in person and when said in writing, even if they are promoting the exact same thing. The Charlie Hebdo team, have again and again expressed their ‘freedom of speech’ often demonising religious groups and painting them in a mockery. What is difficult to understand is how Charlie Hebdo can get away with this but Dieudonné M’bala M’bala cannot. This suggests true freedom of speech simply does not exist.

Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, “Je Suis Charlie” was the slogan circulating to create solidarity amongst the population to stand and condemn the terrorist attacks that occurred. The “Je Suis Charlie” slogan became a national movement.

Many French Muslims were accused of being ISIS sympathisers and terrorists for not wanting to be a part of the “Je Suis Charlie” movement as many Muslims believed that the term illustrated and mirrored the islamophobic hysteria that has been growing in France, acting as a justification for racist jokes and remarks against the Muslim community. But no, if you rejected this movement essentially you were rejecting French values and French solidarity, and you were stripped of your freedom of speech to voice your unpopular opinion as it was seen.

Hence, these arguments clearly demonstrate that freedom of speech is only given to people who mirror mainstream culture. Those with unpopular opinions are often stripped of their right to voice their opinions. Therefore, this leads me to conclude that in reality, true freedom of speech is merely an illusion in European countries.


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Hannah Tayab 3 Articles
I am 19 years old and an aspiring lawyer. I love writing, especially about current affairs.

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