Opinions are protected by the right to freedom of expression
14 Jan 2015

The arrest of French comedian Dieudonné today appears to be connected to a Facebook comment he posted after Sunday’s march in Paris in which he said he felt he “finally returned home… I feel like Charlie Coulibaly” – remarks that have been interpreted as condoning the action of one of the terrorists involved in the killings of 17 people in Paris last week.

It is important to be clear that while incitement to terrorism is a crime, commentary or jokes about terrorism – no matter how offensive or tasteless – are not. Opinions are protected by the right to freedom of expression.

“You cannot address bigoted and offensive ideas by banning them. To do so simply drives them underground,” said Index CEO Jodie Ginsberg. “The attacks on Charlie Hebdo should be a spur to every one of us to defend ever more vigorously free speech in all forms – even and especially when it represents opinions we find abhorrent or disagree with – so that all views are represented and can be challenged.”

The full text of the Dieudonne remark, later deleted, is as follows: “After this historic march what do I say…Legendary. Instant magic equal to the Big Bang  that created the universe. To a lesser extent (more local) comparable to the coronation of Vercingétorix, I finally returned home. You know that tonight as far as I’m concerned I feel like Charlie Coulibaly”.

As Article 19 points out in a statement today, publicly condoning (faire publiquement l’apologie) acts of terrorism is a crime under Article 421-2-5 of the French Criminal Code.

The offence is punishable with up to five years’ imprisonment, and a fine of €75,000. Harsher penalties for the offence are available when it is committed online, allowing up to seven years’ imprisonment and a fine of €100,000.

“International standards are clear that terrorism offences should not be so broad or vague as to encompass expression where there is no actual intent to encourage or incite terrorist acts,” Article 19 said. “To impose criminal sanctions, there must be a direct and immediate connection between the expression at issue, and the likelihood or occurrence of such violence.”

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