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German Intelligence Chief Advocates for Monitoring Speech and Thought

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The head of Germany’s domestic spy agency, Thomas Haldenwang, has penned an op-ed for a German newspaper and provided some insight into the way he understands freedom of expression, and more importantly, its limits.

Haldenwang, who is at the helm of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV), defended in the article published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung his policy of keeping watch on citizens, which includes things like “thought and speech patterns.”

At the same time, Haldenwang didn’t rule out that legal expressions of opinion might be targeted in this population surveillance effort, and made attempts to provide justification for such a stance.

Meanwhile, critics see this as a policy designed to advance restrictions on speech and economic freedoms, primarily aimed at political opponents. In fact, recent polls suggest that most citizens also believe that BfV has become a political tool, and this opinion is said to be strongly present among parties (other than, unsurprisingly, the Greens).

That seems to be precisely the reason Haldenwang felt compelled to publish his thoughts in the newspaper, noting the increased frequency of “headlines and articles” that question and criticize BfV’s activities, some suggesting the agency is policing opinion, language, and even “mood” – and is morphing into German government’s, basically, “bodyguard.”

Haldenwang goes on to assert that “freedom of opinion prevails” in his country, and reminds his readers (less so, it seems, himself) that this freedom is what separates a democracy from an autocracy.

But, the BfV chief also seems to differentiate between “freedom of opinion” and freedom to actually express that opinion. And while in Germany one can have “offensive, absurd and radical opinions” – freedom of expression “has its limits,” he writes.

“Even within the limits of criminal law, however, expressions of opinion, despite their legality, can become relevant for constitutional protection,” the op-ed goes on.

This can be interpreted as yet another example of authorities in a declaratively democratic country trying to find a way to restrict speech they don’t like regardless of its being formally legal – while at the same time being unwilling to legislate to outlaw it, either because of lack of political consensus, or fear of political backlash.

As for what is speech and opinion that the Constitution may need protecting from, the “definition” is broad enough to fit in a lot of things.

It includes “permissible criticism and democratic protest escalating and turning into aggressive, systematic delegitimization of state conduct” – and this may or may not include “calls for violence.” There’s also violation of “human dignity of members of certain social groups or political actors.”

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