There’s an intractable lesson in politics that pretty much anyone can understand: Those who say they need to limit free speech in order to save it have no intention of trying to save free speech.
That’s the takeaway we should have from German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speech in Berlin last week in which she said that Germans had freedom of expression, provided it was freedom of expression that the government liked.
Merkel made the remarks at the German Chamber of Industry and Commerce in Berlin, according to The Daily Wire.
“We have freedom of expression in our country,” Merkel told the audience.
“For all those who claim that they can no longer express their opinion, I say this to them: If you express a pronounced opinion, you must live with the fact that you will be contradicted. Expressing an opinion does not come at zero cost.”
This is undoubtedly true. The question is whether the cost comes at the hands of the state and whether that contradiction involves penalties. For Merkel, the answer to both of those questions seemed to be in the affirmative.
“But freedom of expression has its limits,” she said.
“Those limits begin where hatred is spread. They begin where the dignity of other people is violated. The [government] will and must oppose extreme speech. Otherwise, our society will no longer be the free society that it was.”
In a Twitter post, Deutsche Welle noted that while “Angela Merkel is not known for her passion,” this was a “fiery speech about freedom of expression.”
It then included a fire emoji because apparently Germany’s state-owned broadcaster of record really wants to sell restricting free speech to the millennial crowd.
Of course, Merkel has already done significant damage in this department.
While Germany has long held to post-World War II restrictions on certain types of speech, mostly centering around anything resembling praise for or positive reference to the Nazis, the current chancellor has gone a bit further.
In 2018, her government enacted a law that punished social media companies that didn’t remove what the government considered hate speech with fines of up to 50 million euros.
There is a certain context to these remarks, and I’d be remiss if we didn’t note it. Germany has seen a rise in violent anti-Semitism in recent years and the political ascendancy of Alternative für Deutschland — a far-right political party with extremist ties that’s made electoral gains off of frustrations with how Merkel’s government has handled the migrant crisis — has become a thorny issue.
In the latter case, perhaps this was an insurance policy against the chance of a snap election. Later in the week, the SPD — the left-wing party Merkel had to enter into a coalition with in order to keep power in part after the AfD sapped away a significant amount of her support in the 2017 German federal election — elected far-left leadership that put the future of Merkel’s coalition in doubt.
The SPD had already been experiencing internal turmoil regarding a spate of electoral losses, according to Reuters, and perhaps Merkel read the tea leaves and decided to strike at the AfD preemptively and/or offer a new campaign talking point.
That said, if you want to deliver rhetorical ammunition to anti-Semites or drive otherwise reasonable people into the hands of far-right political parties, a historically peerless way to do it is to tell your voters you’re going to use the hand of the state to crush speech you don’t agree with.
There are a whole raft of political and social solutions that can be exercised to ameliorate these problems that don’t involve the diktat: “If you don’t say what we want you to say, you won’t be saying it. That’s how we preserve your freedom.”
And keep in mind, there aren’t any other viable options on the German right other than Merkel’s CDU/CSU or the AfD.
Rest assured, too, that AfD party apparatchiks are playing with copies of this speech a million different ways in Final Cut Pro with the results set to hit Facebook when need be. This is the kind of free advertising parties like that simply can’t buy.
As for that 2018 social media free speech law, it’s worth noting it’s been an unfortunate export from Germany to the worst sorts of places. In April of 2019, Mozilla’s Internet Health Report said the legislation “was observed with glee by governments who limit free speech. Russia, Venezuela and Kenya are among countries who quickly designed their own versions of the law.”
Human Rights Watch, an organization that would normally be in favor of the spirit of such legislation, also criticized the particulars of it.
“Governments and the public have valid concerns about the proliferation of illegal or abusive content online, but the new German law is fundamentally flawed,” Wenzel Michalski, Germany director at Human Rights Watch, said in February of 2018.
“It is vague, overbroad, and turns private companies into overzealous censors to avoid steep fines, leaving users with no judicial oversight or right to appeal.”
What, then, is going to be coming down the pike in the future? If this is an issue that Merkel feels strongly about, another strong showing by AfD or criticism of her immigration policies could be the perfect pretext to exploring the extent of the 2018 law — or simply passing new ones.
Either way, I think the takeaway ought to be perfectly clear: This has nothing to do with saving free speech in Germany. Merkel is a chancellor who has no respect for the basic premise of it.
When she says that “[e]xpressing an opinion does not come at zero cost” and that limits “begin where the dignity of other people is violated,” you’re dealing with someone who already thinks ordinary citizens have too much speech and plans to take more away. It’s bone-chilling to anyone who cares about freedom.
She’s also not concerned that “our society will no longer be the free society that it was.” If she was, she’d be trying to maintain a free society.