In the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville, Va., there has been much talk about the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, with some—even on the left—arguing that free speech should be regulated when it is considered hate speech.

In a piece for The Intercept, journalist Glenn Greenwald points to how hate-speech laws in effect in Europe are “used … to suppress, outlaw, and punish more than far-right bigotry” and  have actually been used against the left.

He illustrates his argument with examples from France and the United Kingdom:

[Hate speech] laws have frequently been used to constrain and sanction a wide range of political views that many left-wing censorship advocates would never dream could be deemed “hateful,” and even against opinions which many of them likely share.

France is probably the most extreme case of hate speech laws being abused in this manner. In 2015, France’s highest court upheld the criminal conviction of 12 pro-Palestinian activists for violating restrictions against hate speech. Their crime? Wearing T-shirts that advocated a boycott of Israel — “Long live Palestine, boycott Israel,” the shirts read — which, the court ruled, violated French law that “prescribes imprisonment or a fine of up to $50,000 for parties that ‘provoke discrimination, hatred or violence toward a person or group of people on grounds of their origin, their belonging or their not belonging to an ethnic group, a nation, a race or a certain religion.’” …

There can be little question that if the power to ban “hate speech” were vested in the hands of U.S. officials or courts, the same thing would happen. It is a virtually unquestioned bipartisan consensus that advocating a boycott of Israel constitutes hatred and anti-Semitism. In her 2016 AIPAC speech, Hillary Clinton cited the boycott movement as evidence that “anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world.” A group of bipartisan U.S. legislators are currently sponsoring legislation to make it illegal for businesses to participate in any international boycott of Israel, a bill that the American Civil Liberties Union says can be used to criminalize advocacy of boycotts. …

In the UK, “hate speech” has come to include anyone expressing virulent criticism of UK soldiers fighting in war. In 2012, a British Muslim teenager, Azhar Ahmed, was arrested for committing a “racially aggravated public order offence.” His crime? After British soldiers were killed in Afghanistan, he cited on his Facebook page the countless innocent Afghans killed by British soldiers and wrote: “All soldiers should DIE & go to HELL! THE LOWLIFE F*****N SCUM! gotta problem go cry at your soldiers grave & wish him hell because that where he is going.”

Greenwald also explains how Americans have also fought their fair share of battles to keep speech free:

… the ACLU was born out of an attempt by former President Woodrow Wilson to criminalize dissent from his policy of involving the U.S. in World War I. It then spent decades fighting censorship efforts aimed at communists, socialists, civil rights groups, and LGBT activists. When you empower society to outlaw ideas it hates most, that is who is most vulnerable. Civil liberties lawyers were successful in defending those groups only by upholding the principle that state censorship of political viewpoints is always impermissible.

But to see what the actual rather than the hoped-for effects of hate speech laws are, no speculation is necessary, nor does one need to dig through U.S. history in the 20th century. Just look at how such laws in Europe are now being applied, and against whom. Who could possibly look at that and view it as desirable?

The journalist’s final question should give everyone in the U.S.—on the left and on the right—much-needed pause, even at this uneasy time.

— Posted by Natasha Hakimi Zapata

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