Unlike in the US, many European countries have long had laws criminalizing what they define as hate speech.
Not only can hate speech laws be abused to chill speech in general and promote censorship online and in real world, they can also be used to falsely accuse people in absurd ways, like the case in Germany where reportedly, two people highlighting the problem of antisemitism could now be accused of antisemitism under the country’s hate speech legislation.
Reports out of Germany show how such laws can easily backfire to falsely accuse and harm people of promoting hateful speech – even high profile public figures.
The news story comes from the Judische Allgemeine and concerns an antisemitic flier that was physically distributed in Cologne, prompting one member of the Jewish community to share a picture of it on Twitter, and the city’s Mayor Henriette Reker to retweet.
Although their intent was to draw attention to this as an act of hate speech, they wound up being investigated for expressing hate speech themselves.
There can be no doubt about Reker’s motive for sharing the tweet, which has now been deleted, given her political views.
But the public prosecutor in Cologne, Ulf Willhuhn, is defending his office’s decision to start proceedings against Samuel Ahren, the member of the Jewish community who originally posted the tweet, and the mayor. Willhuhn said it was the prosecution’s duty to investigate what he said was inflammatory content on social media.
The report also revealed that Germany’s Criminal Code specifies that distribution of hate speech content is prohibited regardless of intent behind it, that is, whether it is to promote ideas such as antisemitism, or highlight these incidents and condemn them.