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Paris Attacks Bring New Attention To Free Speech Laws In France


French authorities announced the arrests of more than 50 people yesterday - not for terrorism, but for speech. Among those detained was the controversial French comedian Dieudonne. He's been convicted numerous times before for inciting anti-Semitism. To understand the laws governing free speech in France, I spoke with Aurelien Hamelle, an attorney in Paris. And I asked him what is considered illegal hate speech under French law.

AURELIEN HAMELLE: Well, I guess we could identify three different offenses that could qualify, broadly, as hate speech. One is inducing anyone into violence, hate or discrimination towards a person or a group of persons on account of their origin, race or religion. Then, another offense is actually what we call apologie, meaning defending or justifying certain crimes, certain offenses, among which you will find terrorism, but that's not the only one. And then I would say that another offense falls under the broad category of hate speech, and that is the offense of denying the existence of the Holocaust, which is a specific French offense that a few other countries in Europe actually have.

BLOCK: We've been hearing this week about the comedian - the controversial comedian - Dieudonne, who's gotten in trouble most recently with a Facebook post. And here's what he posted. I feel like Charlie Coulibaly. In other words, he's mixing Charlie, from the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, and Coulibaly, which is the last name of the killer at the kosher grocery store. How did that cross the line and get him detained?

HAMELLE: Well, it seems that the prosecution department that brings cases and prosecutions on account of hate speech has formed an opinion that by putting these two words, I am Charlie Coulibaly, Dieudonne will have condoned or justified what Mr. Coulibaly did - because putting the words together, in a way, means that it brings support to what Mr. Coulibaly may have done - or did, actually.

BLOCK: Has humor been a path toward getting around these limits on free speech before? In other words, if someone can show this was humor - this was a joke - that that could get them in the clear.

HAMELLE: Yes. That's a line of defense that courts do accept. And if they are satisfied that it was humor, then they are likely to enter into an acquittal decision. The reason is actually legally extremely clear when one looks at French decisions. And there's a very consistent and established case law in that respect in France. If no one can take the speech at hand seriously, then it cannot be an offense. And it is only when what is being said or written can be taken seriously that it is likely or it could amount to a hate speech offense.

BLOCK: I gather the satirical weekly that was targeted, Charlie Hebdo, has been at the center of these - of a number of these cases before. Has humor been an avenue for them to mount a defense and to avoid prosecution?

HAMELLE: Well, it has been indeed. There is a very clear decision from 2011, which is a recent one, that actually was dealing with caricatures of the pope and certain articles that were clearly offensive to the Catholic religion. And the court decided that even though these may have been clearly very offensive, these could not be taken seriously. Therefore, Charlie Hebdo evaded conviction.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Hamelle, thanks very much for talking with us today.

HAMELLE: You're welcome.

BLOCK: Attorney Aurelien Hamelle specializes in cases involving freedom of speech. He's a partner with Allen & Overy in Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.