Where do the boundaries lie for Politicians and freedom of speech?

Dutch politician Geert Wilders has recently been accused of inciting hatred against Muslims. In fact, his statements compared the Koran with Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The Dutch Court stated that freedom of expression was the core issue on trial. He wrote on a Dutch newspaper ‘I had enough of Islam in the Netherlands, let not one more Muslim immigrate’. In 2008, he released a short film called Fitna which include images of suicide bombings juxtaposed with Koran’s verses.

The Amsterdam appeals court has ordered prosecutors to bring Geert Wilders on trial for making the anti-Islamic statements. Mr Wilders said the judgement was ‘an attack on the freedom of expression’. However, the Court ruled that his statements surpassed the normal freedom granted to politicians. The controversial politician risks up to a year in jail. He is charged with five counts of giving religious offence to Muslims and inciting hatred and discrimination against Muslims and people of non Western immigrant origin.

That story follows another case of politician’s freedom of expression. In June 2010, the French Minister of the Interior Brice Hortefeux was condemned to pay a 750 euro fine and 2,000 euro damages for racial and injurious statements against a Muslim origin party member. The incident occurred in September 2009 during an interview the Minister had with a Muslim origin party member. The discussion was recorded and broadcasted by the French newspaper website LeMonde.fr in which the Minister declared: ‘It needs to be one. When there is one that is fine. It is when there are many that there are problems’. The diffusion of this statement provoked a collective protest among the government. Brice Hortefeux did not claim a defence of freedom of speech as Geert Wilders did, but gave an incoherent explication to his statement. He stated that he was actually talking about the number of pictures of him taken during the day. The French prosecutor declared that those statements were not public but that they were offensive and insulting towards Muslims and non Western immigrants. Brice Hortefeux appealed this decision.

These two stories lead us to question where the boundary should lie for politicians in free exercise of the freedom of expression, especially in regards to race-related statements. Even though the freedom of speech is a fundamental right, politicians must be mindful of the line between freedom of speech and a potential incitement to hatred and violence that may arise out of their recorded statements.

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