Is Europe Doomed to Repeat History and Drag America Down With Them? | Opinion

In Davos at the World Economic Forum, Věra Jourová, European Commission Vice President for Values and Transparency declared "hate speech" laws and "misinformation laws" are coming to the United States. This is a chilling assertion from a European bureaucrat, but she's not far off. Speech codes are already prevalent on college campuses, and we've seen social media companies take it upon themselves to determine what constitutes "misinformation". But even more repugnant than the declaration itself, is that any European cohort or member of their government elite would have the temerity to criticize the United States when it comes to principles of liberty, free speech, or equality under the law.

Europe has struggled historically with these concepts and to this day, they show a propensity to reject the culture that has led to America eclipsing our European forebears. Most European countries have expressly included broad and amorphous exceptions into their 'free speech' clauses, while the U.S. Bill of Rights codifies an expansive right to free speech: "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech." For example, Jourová is from the Czech Republic, where freedom of expression and the right to seek and disseminate information is limited by law. France's Declaration of Rights says, "The free communication of ideas and of opinions is one of the most precious rights of man. Any citizen may therefore speak, write and publish freely, except what is tantamount to the abuse of this liberty in the cases determined by Law." (Emphasis added.) And Germany's constitution says the right to free expression "...shall find their limits in the provisions of general laws, in provisions for the protection of young persons and in the right to personal honour."

The United States is unique with regard to the founding philosophies that guide our dedication to free speech. When examining our legal philosophy, why would we take direction from foreign countries who have exhibited over the last 100 years that they find American concepts like our Bill of Rights incomprehensible? It is clear there is a genuine cognitive dissonance in Europe's understanding of freedom, and yet there is an arrogance and assertiveness when it comes to criticizing America's culture. Could it be jealousy? Are they compensating for their shortcomings? Or perhaps, it's those despotic tendencies they struggle to rid themselves of.

On U.S. college campuses, social media, in political circles, and now at Davos, you hear a lot about limiting and censoring "offensive speech", "hate speech", or "misinformation", but rarely is there any discussion regarding who gets to define these terms. Nor do you hear that the U.S. Supreme Court has, on numerous occasions, made clear that there is no "hate speech" exception to the First Amendment. Most recently in Iancu v. Brunetti (2019), the Supreme Court reaffirmed the justices' unanimous conclusions in Matal v. Tam (2017) that "[a] core postulate of free speech law" is that "[t]he government may not discriminate against speech based on the ideas or opinions it conveys" and that "a law disfavoring 'ideas that offend' discriminates based on viewpoint, in violation of the First Amendment." Or as the Court simply put it in Tam: "Speech may not be banned on the grounds that it expresses ideas that offend."

European Union flags wave in front of
European Union flags wave in front of the Berlaymont Building, the European Commission's headquarters, at night on January 30, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse / Contributor / Getty Images

In this age of "microaggressions," where speech is conflated with acts of violence, and universities teach that "free speech" has no room for "bad speech," it's not a stretch to imagine those in power using the law to shut down those they disagree with by labeling their ideas "hateful" or otherwise "offensive." We already see this happening on campuses, where students regularly use university Bias Reporting Systems and harassment policies to censor their peers and try to intimidate them from speaking their mind in the first instance.

Imagine if these campus speech codes became the law of the land, empowering censorious apparatchiks to regulate our speech. If you think the division in America is bad now, wait until your neighbor reports you for watching the "wrong" cable news channel. This isn't as simple as banning "hate speech": Anything and everything could be considered "hate speech" to ideologues who seek to increase their power at the expense of our most precious liberties.

We must employ every measure at our disposal to vigorously defend our First Amendment freedoms. Tyrants often seek to regulate speech first, and every time we yield on our founding principles, we inch closer to losing all that makes America so special.

America is not Europe. On the contrary, we purposefully divorced ourselves from Europe. Over the last 250 years, we have out-performed Europe in every conceivable way. Let's not break the pattern now by allowing Europe to shame us into adopting the rash policies they invariably prescribe. Europeans may have surpassed Americans in their propensity to live under tyrannical regimes, but the United States has a much deeper appreciation of individual liberty. Rather than European speech codes coming to America, Europe should embrace America's laws that protect the fundamental right to free speech.

Cherise Trump is executive director of Speech First. Follow her on Twitter: @cherisetrump.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.