Meyer-Lindenberg: Hate Speech: Never Go Full Europe

234,341. What kind of number is that?

I’ll give you a hint: it’s not how many days it feels like Trump’s been in office. Nor is it how many brain cells you lose when you watch an episode of Bill Nye Saves the World. It’s actually how many criminal insult investigations the German police conducted last year.

“Now David,“ I hear you say, quizzically, “I’m an American. Why do I give a fuck, as you appear to do, about what those demiliterate Teutons get up to in the wilderness of Central Europe? Hell, I’m apathetic about things that happen right here in our very own backyard. Why should I waste five minutes of my time reading your drivel?“

Well, consider this. That First Amendment of yours? Just as those who neglect to study history are condemned to repeat it, so too are you at risk of losing your free-speech rights unless you understand what goes on in places that never benefited politically from the Enlightenment. If that sounds a little hyperbolic, you’d do well to remember that the barbarians – who, in classic barbarian fashion, have chosen to invade the warm places first – are already at the gate.

At Berkeley and across the nation, there’s a large and growing group of people whose contempt for America’s liberties is matched only by their ignorance of its heritage. Each day, a new unprincipled, poorly written op-ed pops up in which they call for the U.S. to adopt a European-style censorship scheme, one that would allow them to bar speech they deem hurtful or hateful.

Nor is it just a campus phenomenon. Recently, major newspapers have had a bad run of lending their soapboxes to charlatans who claim that the First Amendment fails to protect speech as long as they and their political fellow travelers hate it enough. We’ve seen it with revenge porn.” We’ve seen it with “hate speech,” where Germanborn NYU professors take to the pages of the Gray Lady to spread their unique brand of First Amendment ignorance. And we’re likely to keep seeing it down the road.

So with the nation’s progressive types demanding someone (Trump? SCOTUS? have they thought this through?) give in to their hate and do away with free speech for them, it seems only prudent for the rest of us to ask what that would look like. And Germany, a country that punishes offensive speech with hefty fines and prison time, is like a ready-made case study.

Back to those 234,000 insult investigations. (Like all stats in this post, the number’s taken from a new batch of federal crime statistics.) Sure sounds like a lot, but what do nearly a quarter million insult cases mean in context? Well, it turns out investigating people for being rude is a big part of what European cops do. Last year, nearly 4% of German criminal investigations revolved around criminal unfriendliness. Put another way, German police chose to devote resources to six insult investigations for every sex crime, or one insult for every two assaults.

While the proliferation of insult cases is bad news for the foul-mouthed, uppity, terminally malcontent and those who have yet to grasp that Freedom Is Slavery, it’s great news for the cops themselves. See, nationwide, the police have an average clearance rate of about 56%. That’s pretty unimpressive as it is, but it’d be even worse without that big chunk of insult investigations, where they managed to come up with a suspect 89% of the time. If only the police were half as good at solving, say, gang rapes (clearance rate: 21-35%) or thefts (27%.)

The data also show that, whatever the justification for making a crime out of hurting people’s feelings, it’s tough to say it’s working out as a matter of public policy. Insult cases increased 8% over 2015, even as the total population held steady. Nor can our European friends pin their insult epidemic on Muslims and foreigners, as fully 80% of foul-mouthed offenders were native-born. Even beer, the grease on the wheels of German society, fails to provide an excuse: 82% of insulters were sober when they allegedly committed the crime. Hard as it may be to believe for someone who’s met Germans, it’s probable that a certain brusqueness is just part of the national psyche.

Criminalizing hurting people’s feelings is a moral failing as well as an ineffective waste of money, you say? Tell that to the many children German police investigated for rudeness last year! All in all, Teutonic taxpayers ponied up for insult investigations into 4,000 elementary school kids. What’s more, it’s my horrified pleasure to tell you that in 2016, 16 preschoolers were subjected to criminal investigations re: their lack of decorum. Worryingly for such a progressive society, there was a pronounced gender gap, with 13 male preschoolers persecuted by the government for only 3 girls so treated.

If you’re feeling bad for these juvenile miscreants, don’t. Reserve your pity for the elderly, the single most disproportionately likely group to be investigated for feelzcrime. Last year, there were twice as many cases targeting the over 60 as there were investigations into teens. (Though to be fair, as anyone who’s survived a drive-by heckling from an old man on a bicycle knows, this kind of “elder abuse” does deserve to be taken seriously.)

Any of that sound deeply shitty? UnAmerican? Glad you’ve got the First Amendment yet? Good! Then my work here is done. But we’d be remiss to leave it at that when Europe has one last lesson to teach us.

Pretend for a moment, as passionate college kidz like to do, that the Constitution doesn’t exist and there are no legal obstacles to punishing hurtful speech. The fact of the matter is that offensiveness is in the eye of the beholder: one person’s hate speech is another’s unobjectionable fact. And if there’s one thing Europe’s governments have demonstrated again and again, it’s that empowering politicians to ban offensive speech is to give them a license to stamp out what’s most offensive to them: mockery and dissent.

As I’ve explained in the past, Germans are vastly more likely to be investigated and prosecuted if they complain about a government employee than if they’re mean to their neighbor Hans. What’s more, the insult law can and frequently does encompass things like opposition politicians calling the Chancellor “insane” at a public meeting. In fact, the more high-profile the object of your scorn, the more likely they are to put law enforcement on your case.

Thus, as so often these days, the problem for those who want to ban hate speech is that Hillary didn’t win. If America were to spontaneously go nuts, heed the passionate folks’ call and outlaw hurtful, hateful speech à la Europe, the very first thing to go would be saying rude things about the President. How could today’s Slacktivists live with themselves if they were barred from tweeting butts at Trump or calling him “Darth Cheeto?” In the European model, the one college students and their enablers seem to so desperately want, calling your elected leaders “literally Hitler” is literally a crime.

So it might be time to forget about the whole “criminalizing hate speech” thing. If not for the edgy tweets, then do it for the preschoolers. Compared to what goes on in places that don’t protect unpopular opinions, having to suffer through an Ann Coulter speech every now and again is a small price to pay.

17 comments on “Meyer-Lindenberg: Hate Speech: Never Go Full Europe

  1. Richard Kopf

    Dave,

    Brilliant!

    All the best. if not literally Hitler, then, at least,

    an old guy with a fetish for jackboots

  2. B. McLeod

    We have this now, at least where the Red Sox play. If someone uses a “racial slur,” you need only call security to have them banned from that stadium for life.

  3. wilbur

    So if I refer to Ms. Merkel as “Ol’ Droopy Drawers” on a visit to Germany, I can potentially face investigation and prosecution? (Note: this is not a request for legal advice.)

    As the second Mrs. Wilbur would have said “Ooooohweee! That don’t seem right!”.

    1. SHG

      You would have faced prosecution if you stopped at “Ol’.” By the end of “drawers,” you were facing death.

  4. CM

    Great post. However, you did make me wait too long for the literally Hitler/literally a crime line. For a split second I thought you missed it. But of course, SHG would never miss that.

  5. junior

    1. Every activity is ‘streng verbotten’, unless allowed by the rules, and
    2. Alles in Ordnung.

    No need, to worry any further about how they got there.
    But they do make a nice autobahn burner though.

  6. Matthew S Wideman

    A very interesting look at the societal and economic costs of policing people’s speech. Most of the arguments about free speech are rooted in principles and ideas which can be hard to quantify. It is interesting and a little shocking to see how a modern country without the 1st Amendment would function. It’s very plain to see that banning free speech would not only make us “stupider”, but make us less safe. The juxtoposition of rape clearance rates vs. speech assaults is appalling. It makes you wonder how much German society actually cares about solving violent crimes.

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