By Jacob Grandstaff
In 2015, Pew Research showed that 40 percent of American millennials’ support limits on the First Amendment to ban “hate speech.” One must wonder where this could lead the United States in the social media age once this demographic outnumbers its elders at the voting booth. Germany’s legal limitations on social media provide an example of what may follow in the U.S. if this generation continues to value social justice above personal freedom.
A new anti-hate speech law in Germany, known as NetzDG, took effect on January that demands social media platforms remove offensive material within 24 hours, or face fines up to $60.2 million. This not only places an incredible cost burden on social media companies who operate in the country, but puts a chill on freedom of speech.
Already, the law has sparked backlash, as social media outlets have begun complying, by banning news outlets and individual users who express opinions considered bigoted by the government in Berlin.
Politico reported that other major countries, including France and the United Kingdom are watching the effectiveness of Germany’s law to counter false news reports and speech it deems offensive, to determine whether to take similar action. Even the European Commission is considering tightening its pan-EU online guidelines to match hate speech legislation crafted for the offline world.
But suppression of free speech is nothing new for post-World War II Germany. Showing that it doesn’t trust its citizens with freedom, the German government bans any symbolism associated with its Nazi past, and regularly cracks down on far-right groups. Last August, two Chinese tourists were even arrested and ordered to pay over $598 for bail when they gave the Nazi salute outside the Reichstag, Germany’s lower house of Parliament.
Following a far right rally in Charlottesvile, Virginia, last August that included Neo-Nazis, Austin Davis wrote in USA Today, “The country that gave rise to the Nazi’s reign of terror doesn’t understand why the United States — which sacrificed lives in World War II to defeat the Nazis — allows modern-day sympathizers a public platform to spread their racist and anti-Semitic views.”
But what Germans, and many Americans, misunderstand is that Americans who died in World War II gave their lives to defend American civilization, which the Nazi regime—including through its oppression of free speech—threatened to extinguish.
German Social Democratic (SPD) Justice Minister Heiko Maas, and architect of the NetzDG, defended his legislation to Bild, the top-selling German newspaper—which incidentally boasts an strong social media presence—on the grounds that “freedom of expression is not a license to commit a crime.” Maas went on to place “threats and insults” in the same category with incitement to murder, and claimed that they attack “the freedom of expression of others.”
But despite the clear backing of SPD, the country’s second major party, the law has plenty of critics. Thomas Jarzombek, a senior member of the German parliament for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) told Politico, “The core problem [with the law] is that companies can play judges.”
On Wednesday, under the headline “Spare us the Thought Police,” Bild ran an article calling the new law a “sin” against freedom of expression in the German constitution. “The law against online hate speech failed on its very first day,” wrote Julian Reichelt, the publication’s editor in chief. He observed that the law could be applied against anything and anyone because there is no clear definition of what is “manifestly unlawful.”
Already, a member of the German parliament has seen her Twitter account suspended for tweeting critically of Muslims. Shortly afterward, the German magazine Titanic mocked the MP through a series of parody tweets, which prompted Twitter to suspend it also.
Sadly, the push by many American universities to crack down on speech that is offensive toward groups is slowly bleeding over into the prosecutorial realm. Recently, a University of Vermont student faced criminal charges after a fellow student reported him to university officials for racially offensive statements he allegedly made—but denied—during a library phone conversation. Thankfully, the judge dismissed the case, but this shows the danger of raising the nonexistent right to not be offended to the level of—and even above—the First Amendment.
If Millennials continue to regard group social justice above individual rights and personal freedom, it could create a culture in the U.S. similar to the late Ottoman Empire, where the central government deals with ethnic groups instead of individual citizens. A similar situation also existed in corrupt American cities in the early 20th century, when municipal governments run by political bosses dealt with ethnic community leaders to shore up support, rather than with the citizenry as a whole.
Germany’s anti-free speech and anti-fake news laws represent an existential threat to liberal, Western democracy. But more frightening, they show the way for American Millennials hellbent on using government to punish those whose social views they find reprehensible.