Free speech is in the news again as a German court ruled this week that a comedian, Jan Boehmermann, may not repeat parts of a poem critical of Turkish president Erdogan. Did the judges get it right? Let’s look at the details.
The poem came in the wake of Erdogan’s crackdown on journalists in his country and accuses him of treating minorities badly. Surprisingly, Germany still has a law on its books dating from the 19th century that forbids criticism of foreign heads of state. Boehmermann broke that law. He knows he broke it, and wanted, in fact, to challenge it. The German government agrees that law should go and is going to repeal it soon. Chalk one up for freedom of speech. No person, not even a head of state, should be immune from criticism.
But the other part of the ruling had to do with the way in which our comedian chose to criticize. He did it by stating that Erdogan watched child pornography, was a gang rapist, and had sex with animals. This is reminiscent of Hustler magazine’s scurrilous “jokes” about Rev. Jerry Falwell, humor that the US Supreme Court ruled was allowed under free speech protections. The German court found the exact opposite, saying this was a type of speech not covered by German law. So who was right? If you’re a moral relativist you might say both—it’s a cultural thing. I don’t think so.
It’s important to note that the Germans use the word “Meinungsfreiheit”—Freedom of Opinion—instead of “freedom of speech.” It’s a good distinction to make. Article 5 of the German Constitution has this to say:
1) Everyone has the right to express their opinion in speech, writing, or in pictures.
2) This right is limited by the laws that protect children and by the right of personal honor (der persönlichen Ehre).
3) Art and science, research and teaching are protected freedoms.
Boehmermann claimed he was exercising his artistic freedom. But the court noted that art must give way to Erdogan’s right to maintain his honor, or we might say his personal dignity. That seems unquestionably the correct way to look at this. You shouldn’t be able to just spit out obscenities about anyone in the name of art.
So who is this comedian anyway? One news report noted that Herr Boehmermann is one of the most “incisive satirists” in Germany with his own show on a TV network. Really? And this is the kind of material he comes up with? What is going on over in Germany? This sounds about as incisive as any snickering schoolboy could come up with on his day off. The question I have is, did anyone think it was funny? Or was it just a stunt to challenge that old law?
Whatever the answer to that question, can we agree he was way off base? Just as in the Charlie Hebdo case, there should be limits on speech, writing, and pictures. That limit could be summed up in the word respect. Let’s have your opinions by all means, but choose your words with care. To adopt Boehmermann’s tactic only makes you look like an idiot and undercuts your message. The German law has it right and should be a model for every other nation.