Free speech - no thanks!
The debate about freedom of speech has become increasingly incendiary in the wake of the Norway attacks. Freedom of speech is seen as a cornerstone of modern democracy. Not just Norway itself, but also the Netherlands is now wondering where the balance lies between fear of inciting violence and the right to express controversial opinions."Tofik creates a breeding ground for violence against Geert Wilders. Exterminate that Moroccan insect!"
That's a recent tweet by an anonymous activist under the name Stop Left. It was a response to the call by Green Left MP Tofik Dibi for a debate in parliament on the implications for the Netherlands of last month's attacks in Norway. The person who carried out the attacks, Anders Breivik, cited Dutch politician Geert Wilders as one of his inspirations. Dibi is pressing charges against Stop Left for inciting violence.
The threatening tweet illustrates how incendiary the debate about freedom of speech has become in the wake of the Norway attacks. As freedom of speech is seen as a cornerstone of modern democracy, the Dutch now ask: Where does the balance lie between fear of inciting violence and the right to express controversial opinions?
First Amendment for the Netherlands?
In fact, the Dutch debate about the limits of free speech was already heated before the Norway attacks. In June, Wilders was acquitted on hate speech charges, a verdict that has changed the legal landscape, making prosecutions under the current hate speech laws more difficult.
Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party and a partner of the current minority government, now wants to scrap the hate speech law altogether. He is preparing a constitutional amendment for the Netherlands - similar to the US Free Speech First Amendment - which would vastly expand the rights to free speech.
True to form, Wilders did little to moderate his speech in the wake of the Norway attacks. After condemning the violence, and calling it a "slap in the face for the global anti-Islam movement", he later went on to reiterate his call to fight perceived Islamification.
"We have too much mass immigration from Muslim countries and too many hate palaces - [Labour Party leader Job, ed.] Cohen calls them mosques, I believe. Immigrants are still over-represented in crime statistics. Enough is enough."
Wilders does not advocate violence. But many have questioned whether he contributes to a climate that encourages violence against Muslims or immigrants. Then came this summer's double whammy: Wilders' vindication in court for what even the chief judge called "gross and denigrating" language and then, just four weeks later, Anders Breivik killing 77 people in Norway.
In his ‘manifesto' Breivik praised the Netherlands and quoted Wilders several times. Some feel it is time to reign in freedom of speech.
But the fear of violence is not limited to one side. Wilders has been under 24-hour protection since another violent incident back in 2004, which brought the freedom of speech debate to the fore: the murder of Theo van Gogh.
Van Gogh, one of the most outspoken public figures in the Netherlands, was killed by a young Muslim ostensibly in the name of religion. His murder was widely perceived as an attack on freedom of speech.
Wilders, and former Dutch MP Ayaan Hirsi Ali, another outspoken critic of Islam, both refused to be silenced at the time and have continued to voice their opinions in spite of repeated threats on their lives.
Since the murder of Van Gogh, Geert Wilders and his followers have been pushing the boundaries of freedom of speech. Partly as a consequence, freedom of speech has gained even more importance as a perceived fundamental right among the Dutch public. This comes at times at the expense of freedom of religion, and the rights of minorities, rights traditionally seen as a cornerstone of ‘tolerant' Dutch society.
The new parliamentary year gets underway in just a few weeks. Wilders will seek to expand freedom of speech in the Netherlands, while Tofik Dibi and others will question whether things haven't already gone too far. With the events in Norway hanging as a dark cloud on the horizon, the debate over free speech is as divisive as ever.
RNW/ John Tyler