Free Speech on Trial in Austria ... and Europe

In the trial against Sabaditsch-Wolff, her accusers are basing their case on out-of-context quotes from an article in a socialist magazine. The main difference in the two cases is that Wilders is a professional politician while Sabaditsch-Wolff is a private citizen, a housewife who lacks the resources to defend herself against the deep pockets of the state that wants to silence her.

Of course, Sabaditsch-Wolff is not the only Austrian to run afoul of the country’s anti-free speech laws. In January 2009, Susanne Winter, an Austrian politician and member of parliament, was convicted for the “crime” of saying that “in today’s system” the Prophet Muhammad would be considered a “child molester,” referring to his marriage at the age of 56 to a six-year-old child. She was also convicted for “incitement” for warning that Austria faces an “Islamic immigration tsunami.” Winters was ordered to pay a fine of €24,000 ($31,000) and received a suspended three-month prison sentence.

Elsewhere in Europe, in Italy the late Oriana Fallaci, a journalist and author, was taken to court for writing that Islam “brings hate instead of love and slavery instead of freedom.” She died in September 2006, two months after the start of her trial. In France, novelist Michel Houellebecq was taken to court for calling Islam “the stupidest religion.” He was acquitted in October 2002. Also in France, a Paris court in June 2008 convicted animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot for “inciting racial hatred” for demanding that Muslims anaesthetize animals before slaughtering them.

In Britain, the Racial and Religious Hatred Act creates a new crime of intentionally stirring up religious hatred against people on religious grounds. The new law effectively establishes new limits on free speech in the country that in 1215 produced the Magna Carta, the famous document that is the foundation of British liberty and partly inspired the Constitution of the United States.

In Europe as a whole, the European Union recently issued a new law known as the “Framework Decision on Combating Racism and Xenophobia.” The edict requires the punishment of “certain forms and expressions of racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law.”

More specifically, the text establishes that the following conduct is punishable in all 27 member states of the European Union: “Publicly inciting to violence or hatred, even by dissemination or distribution of tracts, pictures or other material, directed against a group of persons or a member of such a group defined by reference to race, colour, religion, descent or national or ethnic origin.”

Free speech advocates worry that the vague and all-encompassing language of the new law will be used to silence critics of Islam in a Europe that lacks American-like First Amendment protections of free speech. In fact, another EU law called the “Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union” (see paragraph 52, subsection 1) actually gives non-elected bureaucrats in Brussels the right to prosecute European citizens for expressing the “wrong” opinions if it is in the interests of the European Union to do so.

Back in Vienna, Sabaditsch-Wolff says her case is not really about her or the law, but rather it is a political trial intended to silence anyone who speaks out against Islam. In a recent speech to the International Free Press Society (transcript here), she said: “Freedom of speech is under attack today all across Europe. Today, in 21st century Western Europe, our right to free speech is being shut down quietly and systematically with an effectiveness that the commissars in the old Soviet Union could only dream of.”

Sabaditsch-Wolff also says: “We’re going to reply to the charges and we will do that in full detail. It remains to be seen whether the truth is a defense. I don’t think it will be.”