The populist Dutch politician Geert Wilders has been acquitted of inciting hatred of Muslims. The case was seen by many of us as a test of free speech in a country where opposition is increasing to immigration—especially immigration from Muslim countries.
Mr. Wilders is an outspoken critic of immigration in the Netherlands. His Freedom Party is now the third-largest in Holland’s parliament and is helping prop up its minority government. Many of his comments, however, have been controversial.
The judge found that while Wilders’s remarks were sometimes hurtful, shocking or offensive, they were made in the context of a public debate about Muslim integration and multiculturalism, and therefore were not a criminal act.
Wilders has already won concessions from the government on reducing immigration and introducing a ban on Muslim face-veils and burqas, and some believe this verdict has made him stronger politically.
As is happening elsewhere in Europe, from France to Scandinavia, Dutch citizens have started to question their country’s generous immigration policies, and have been worried by ethnic crime and signs that Muslim immigrants have not fully integrated into Dutch society.
The court agreed with a Supreme Court ruling that an offensive statement about someone’s religion was not a criminal offence. Even the prosecution had asked for an acquittal, on the basis that politicians have the right to comment on issues without trying to foment violence or division.
This is a verdict to be applauded by all believers in free speech/expression. Insults should never lead to criminal charges or sanctions by the human rights community. Free speech is one our most fundamental human rights, and is a cornerstone of Western democracy.
Sadly, free speech rights in Canada have been steadily eroded, to the point where some in authority believe truth should not be a valid defence. A verdict such as that in the Wilders case gives us hope that perhaps the tide is turning towards freer speech.