Insults Are Speech But Not Always Protected
The Short Version
Germany’s long-standing law against insulting leaders of foreign governments is going away after an unsettling row with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At the same time, American actor Shia LaBeouf was arrested after a verbal altercation in front of an art museum in New York. The contrast between the two incidents demonstrates stark differences in attitudes between the two countries.
Germany has long had a law that prohibits people from saying nasty things about foreign heads of state who are in Germany at the time of the insult. The German Criminal Code currently states:
“Whosoever insults a foreign head of state, or, with respect to his position, a member of a foreign government who is in Germany in his official capacity, or a head of a foreign diplomatic mission who is accredited in the Federal territory shall be liable to imprisonment not exceeding three years or a fine, in case of a slanderous insult to imprisonment from three months to five years.”
The law is part of old German code that has its roots in pre-World War II laws and revised to its current version after the war. It was recently brought into play as charges were filed against a German comedian, Jan Boehmermann. Boehmermann’s crime? He read a poem on television that insulted Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Insulted” is probably being a little too nice. The poem inferred a connection between the president and child porn and bestiality. I tried finding a reasonable translation and what I found was too disgusting to bother copying. Let’s just say that this poem, any way you look at it, was in very, very bad taste.
Naturally, the Turkish President was butt hurt. He called in the German ambassador. Charges were filed. Both nations got into a real tizzy about the whole thing. That was back in March-April of last year. However, the case was quietly dropped in October due to a lack of evidence. Boehmermann said that the poem was meant to show an example of the type of insult not allowed in Germany and that he never intended to insult the Turkish president directly.
German citizens, however, were deeply upset that charges had ever been filed in the first place, citing free speech. So, Justice Minister Heiko Mass said yesterday that the law is being scrapped, effective the first of next year.
Meanwhile, In The US
Actor Shia LaBeouf was arrested last night on charges of misdemeanor assault after he got in the face of a man reciting Nazi propaganda outside the New York City museum.
In case you’ve not been paying attention, the politically active LaBeouf set up a 24-hour live stream outside the museum on January 20, in conjunction with the inauguration of the 45th president. The stated purpose is for people to come up to the camera and repeat the words, “He will not divide us.”
Naturally, given all the free publicity the campaign has received, a lot of people with different messages have attempted to step in front of the camera and more than once dear Shia has gotten in their face. The Internet rather exploded on Monday with his verbal takedown of a white supremacist. When another such hate-filled speaker showed up in front of the camera yesterday, LaBeouf was again there to shout the person down. Only this time, according to the charges being filed, the actor pulled at the scarf of the man, scratching the man’s face in the process.
Wait, the scarf scratched the man’s face? What was that scarf made of, steel wool? Something doesn’t sound quite right here.
And yes, the Internet has taken note of the fact that a jew was arrested for taking down a Nazi. #FreeShia has been trending on Twitter all night.
The timing of the two incidents is interesting, though. We generally associate Nazis with Germany. Yet, in this case, it would appear that one has greater freedom of speech in Germany than one does in the United States. Something to think about.