The limits of freedom of expression

As a Franco-American with strong ties to both cultures, I’ve always struggled a bit to reconcile what “freedom of expression” means in my two countries. While I’m – of course – a firm believer in freedom of expression (part and parcel of being a liberal/progressive), I did not grow up in a country where politicians and opinion leaders could lash out terrible racist or homophobic epithets with no consequences. In the United States, however, I am consistently shocked and angered by some of the stories I come across. Like this:

A South Carolina lawmaker on Thursday called a Republican gubernatorial candidate of Indian descent a “raghead,” saying we have one in the White House, we don’t need one in the governor’s mansion.

Or, this, which is down right infuriating:

An Arizona elementary school mural featuring the faces of kids who attend the school has been the subject of constant daytime drive-by racist screaming, from adults, as well as a radio talk-show campaign (by an actual city councilman, who has an AM talk-radio show) to remove the black student’s face from the mural, and now the school principal has ordered the faces of the Latino and Black students pictured on the school wall to be repainted as light-skinned children.
(emphasis in the original article)

Neither of these stories are particularly different from the hundreds of other stories of racism and intolerance. I think, as Americans, we’ve become numb to this, in spite of the fact that it’s completely outrageous and unacceptable that in 2010, in a supposedly modern and free America, people are still being vilified for their race, creed or sexual orientation – without any consequences.

Freedom of expression is a thorny issue, with deep philosophical implications, and I won’t take attempt to take on this subject in this blog – partly because I have not really made up my mind about my own views as to what freedom of expression should look like.

What I do know, though, is that I tend to prefer the French approach. In France, a 1990 law was passed to criminalize the denial of crimes against humanity. Publications or public expressions of support for these crimes are punishable by fines and/or imprisonment. This meant that Holocaust deniers could no longer publicize their views, and, if they did, would be charged under this law. I’m sure many Americans recoil at the notion that people’s opinions cannot all be shared with the public – regardless of how offensive, outrageous and wrong they are. Another law, passed in 2004, “makes sexist or homophobic comments illegal and forbids job discrimination against homosexuals.”

In my mind, while these laws represent restrictions to freedom of expression, they are also the sign of a society that has the moral courage to distinguish between right and wrong. I also believe these laws – while they do curb people’s individual freedom of expression – actually promote another type of freedom: that of the individual not to be discriminated against, belittled or victimized by bigots. I’ve always marveled at the stories out of the United States where neo-Nazis are prancing around denying the Holocaust, or talk-show radio hosts spewing their racist, intolerant venom. I don’t see what is so “free” about that.

In fact, just yesterday, French immigration minister Brice Hortefeux – well-known for his dislike of immigrants – was fined $900 “private insults of a racial nature.” While many in France are calling for his resignation, Hortefeux says he will appeal the decision. The New York Times recaps the incident which led to the fine:

The verdict comes nine months after Mr. Hortefeux was recorded on camera at an event in southwestern France on Sept. 5 making what to many sounded like anti-Arab remarks. The video, which was first posted on the Web site of Le Monde, shows the minister posing for a photo with a young party member of Arab origin when a woman in the crowd can be heard saying:

“Amine is a Catholic. He eats pork and drinks beer.”

“Ah, but that doesn’t work at all, then he does not fit the prototype at all,” Mr. Hortefeux is heard replying to general laughter.

Another female voice shouts: “He’s our little Arab.”

Mr. Hortefeux answers: “All the better. There always has to be one. When there’s one, it’s O.K. It’s when there are a lot of them that there are problems.”

Seriously? Remember, this man is the Minister of Immigration. For French speakers, you can watch the video here.

I think it’s a real stretch to say freedom of expression is endangered in France, even though some members of the press who have clashed with Sarkozy and his administration might beg to differ. I see these laws, which protect individuals and groups from libel and discrimination, as necessary tools to fight against intolerance. When I read stories like the one about the Arizona school mural, I find it hard to believe that Americans continue to defend unbridled “freedom” of expression…

H1Nwhat?

Ever since I got back to France a couple of weeks ago, two hotly debated news stories have caught my attention. What I love about the French is that they take the gloves off when it comes to discussing issues, and listening to both sides has been rather fascinating. One of these issues is the “debat sur l’identite nationale” (“debate on national identity”), which is an attempt by the Minister of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Solidary Development (a real mouthful) to (re)define the tenets of French national identity. That’ll be the topic of another post. For now, suffice it to say that it’s highly contentious and has opened the door and given credence to racist and intolerant comments in the media and the political arena.

The other issue that I’ve been following with a lot of curiosity is the kerfuffle around H1N1. After having spent two months in Liberia where H1n1 is not at all discussed, I came back to a country where the Minister of Health, Roselyne Bachelot, had made the decision to purchase 94 million doses of Tamiflu to innoculate the French population. First of all, given that there are only 63 million citizens, the 94 million figure seems excessive. Apparently, the French authorities were told that those who get vaccinated must get more than one shot, hence the incredibly large order of Tamiflu – except that, oops!, you actually only need one dose. France has apparently purchased 1/3 (one third!) of all Tamiflu stocks in the world, for a mere 870 million euros (1,250,000,000 USD). Now, the French are trying to cancel part of their order to four different pharmaceutical companies, hoping to save 350 million euros. The government is also selling off their overstock abroad – but given that the epidemic’s peak has apparently been reached, they are having a hard time finding customers for their second hand vaccine.

French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot, having a jolly good time receiving her dose of Tamiflu

The government has come under fire for inflating the threat posed by H1N1, and responding inappropriately. Many opposition figures are calling the government’s handling of H1N1 “scandalous” and a waste of public funds. Sarkozy’s Foreign Affairs Minister, loud-mouthed Bernard Kouchner, claims that he is “scandalized by the scandal”, and that if the government had not taken the epidemic seriously and people had died of H1N1, then the criticism would have been (legitimately) much stronger. President Nicolas Sarkozy defended the Health Minister’s decision by saying that 219 people died of this flu in 2009, and that his government couldn’t make it a banal issue. Fair enough. But let’s do some simple math. First of all, 94 million vaccines for 870 million euros is unbelievably expensive – nearly 10 euros (15 USD) per dose. Really?! What’s the production cost of this vaccine? And if it’s critical to global public health, shouldn’t the pharmas make it slightly more affordable? (I know the answer to that question – I mean it rhetorically). Alternatively, couldn’t France have negotiated these prices a little bit more? Sweet deal for the pharmas.

219 deaths from H1N1 in 2009….and between 1,500 and 2,000 deaths from the “regular” flu every year, in France. 2.5 million people suffer from the flu each year in the country. In fact, the flu is the number one infectious disease in France. Now, are we spending even a fraction of what we’re spending on H1N1 to fight the “regular” flu? No. I honestly have no idea how the government can justify spending nearly one billion euros on this new strain of flu. The flu is a perennial disease, and it’s a constantly evolving infection. Perhaps we should spend a fraction of the 870 million euros on strengthening health systems, particularly prevention activities among the vulnerable: the young, the elderly, pregnant women and (gasp!) poor people.

Each year in France, HIV-AIDS kills 1,700 people and there are more than 5,000 new infections. Why aren’t we spending hundreds of millions of euros stopping the spread of this incurable disease? Infectious disease causes only 2% of deaths in France – why not focus on the real killers?

A recent motion in the European Parliament reads:

“In order to promote their patented drugs and vaccines against flu, pharmaceutical companies have
influenced scientists and official agencies, responsible for public health standards, to alarm governments
worldwide. They have made them squander tight health care resources for inefficient vaccine strategies and
needlessly exposed millions of healthy people to the risk of unknown side-effects of insufficiently tested
vaccines.

The “birds-flu“-campaign (2005/06) combined with the “swine-flu“-campaign seem to have caused a great
deal of damage not only to some vaccinated patients and to public health budgets, but also to the credibility
and accountability of important international health agencies. The definition of an alarming pandemic must
not be under the influence of drug-sellers.

The member states of the Council of Europe should ask for immediate investigations on the consequences at national as well as European level.”