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It's widely known that in most western countries, it's allowed to mock religion - because of freedom of speech.

Does freedom of speech allow one to mock everything, or are there taboo subjects that cannot be mocked?

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It is a bit more complicated. I live in Germany, and StGb §166 (StGb being "Strafgesetzbuch", the penal code) makes insults against religious groups illegal. There is also a paragraph in the constitution that says I enjoy free speech.

Since this is at the face of it not compatible with each other, we have courts and judges that, when necessary, have to decide if the constitutional right (free spech) outweighs the provisions of the StGb.

E.g.reproducing the Hebdo cartoons (or Grosz' "Christ with Gas Mask") in a newspaper would certainly be legal, since that (I presume) would be considered social commentary rather than an outright attack against Islam ( or Christian religion for the Grosz example). Distributing a leaflet that states, "all muslims are terrorist" would come under a lot more legal scrutiny.

So the crux of the matter is that there is no absolute law; I do not have an absolute right to free speech, but likewise no religion has an absolute right to be protected from other peoples opinions. What we have instead is a legal process that mediates between the affected groups. What makes this difficult especially in the context of religion is that religions usually do claim to have absolute laws, and are not necessarily content with following the legal process.

So there is a host of things that is "tabooed" in the sense that they might lead to legal consequences (holocaust denial; insults against persons; discrimination based on gender/religion/race etc). But if any specific instance was egregious enough to warrant some sort of punishment has to be determined by the court, based not only on the word of the law but also on current social norms, the context in which the alleged insult happened and other factors.

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    Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequences from said speech. For example in the USA, the only guarantee is that "congress shall pass no law...". You are still liable for any insults you utter (regardless of where). In private spaces (surprise, just like this page here) that constitutional right is worth nothing. A private entity has all the right to limit what you can say in their space. – Mindwin Oct 29 '20 at 19:39
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    Freedom of speech is pretty much freedom of a wide range of possible consequences. – fraxinus Oct 29 '20 at 19:45
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    @Anoldmaninthesea. that would be a pretty useless freedom, if it did not protect from consequences. Right now people are marching through my home town Berlin claiming that Angela Merkel is a treacherous 12 foot space lizard, and none of them will go to prison for that. However in most cases freedom of speech does simply not apply - my constitutional rights protect me from my government, but they are mostly irrelevant in an argument with my neighbour (also freedom of speech does not mean anybody has to listen to me, which is the bit that seems to confuse many people). – Eike Pierstorff Oct 29 '20 at 20:08
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    @Mindwin : but what if that "private entity" grows so strong as to become an essential and almost monopolist platform? And then they choose to block and ban everyone leaning even slightly in one political direction, while allowing and encouraging even the most extreme ones leaning to the other side of the political spectrum? Meanwhile presenting themselves as "neutral". – vsz Oct 30 '20 at 7:16
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    @vsz then you run into the problem of "politics moves on a geological timescale". There's few laws and rules for this kind of thing, because it wasn't possible 50 years ago and politics are mostly still trying to figure out this thing called "an internet". – Erik Oct 30 '20 at 9:07
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In very general terms, the contemporary understanding of freedom of expression is that it should be relatively uninhibited provided that it satisfies two conditions:

  1. It does not infringe on other people's rights and liberties.

  2. It does not infringe on the necessary conditions for a democratic society to exist.

This concept (known as limitation clause) is discussed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 29, Clause 2:

In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.

So back to your question, does freedom of speech supposes freedom to mock everything? If by "mocking" you mean ridicule for the purpose of causing embarrassment, I believe most democratic jurisdictions would consider it to be acceptable.

The first reason is that causing embarrassment in someone does not meet the threshold of violating their human rights; the second reason is that democracy will not collapse just because a person is embarrassed (one might even argue mockery and satire is necessary in a democratic society).

Here are some examples that might be considered "taboo" under freedom of expression:

  • Publishing people's addresses on social media and call for the public to threaten their life. This obviously violates people's right to life and security of person, and a judge will probably not accept the argument that it is a mere "joke" or "mockery."

  • Spreading lies about a person that damages their honor and reputation. This is often called "defamation" and can be used to sue someone if the assertion is indisputably false and causes quantifiable damage to the victim (particularly financial losses). Note, defamation law does not apply to statements that are verifiably true.

  • Slandering the judiciary (particularly Judges) in ways that deliberately undermine public confidence in the democratic system. Under most jurisdictions, Judges will accept criticisms on their rulings as long as it is directed at their argument and not the Judge themselves. But if you seek to claim, or even imply, that a Judge is biased because of certain character traits, they can punish you with the force of law.

  • Commenting on ongoing court cases. Media outlets are required to refrain from publishing information related to ongoing court cases in order to protect the impartiality of Judges and the jury. If you uncovered something, you can only publish it after the court case has closed, until then, you can only report on information already made public during a court hearing.

Special immunity:

  • There is one scenario in which a person might get away with all the four cases I mentioned above, which is when you are a member of an elected legislative body (Parliament, Congress, etc). Most elected officials have special immunity for anything they say on the floor of the legislature, for the interest of facilitating democratic debate. However, it is debatable whether a lawmaker should do such a controversial thing at all.
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    Great answer. For the final two paragraphs, it might be worth adding links to further information on sub judice and parliamentary privilege, respectively. – Steve Melnikoff Oct 29 '20 at 13:22
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    Nitpicking, "libel" refers to written material, and is a limitation on freedom of the press rather than freedom of speech. The word you are looking for is "slander", which is the spoken equivalent of libel, or perhaps "defamation", which includes both libel and slander. – David Hammen Oct 29 '20 at 14:18
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    In the US, commenting on ongoing court cases is rarely illegal. Judges may sometimes tell the parties to a court case to refrain from commenting to the media. Even then, the media are typically allowed to observe and comment on an ongoing court case. It is very rare for a judge to take a court case private as there have to be profoundly strong reasons for doing so. – David Hammen Oct 29 '20 at 14:22
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    Defamation law, at least in the US, does not pertain to the Prophet, or Jesus, or anyone who died more than three months ago. The dead have no honor to defend in the US, except in Rhode Island. (Rhode Island has a three month delay from death to when defamation longer applies.) – David Hammen Oct 29 '20 at 15:17
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    @DavidHammen: This answer is clearly written from a global perspective. In the US, there's basically no such thing as "slandering the judiciary" (separate and apart from "regular" defamation), so if you think a judge is biased, you can say so as much as you like. See for example Judge Persky. – Kevin Oct 29 '20 at 17:01
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It depends on the country.

My own country, Germany, for example bans holocaust-denial and Volksverhetzung. We even have a "blasphemy-paragraph", which makes it punishable by law to insult a religion in such a way that it can lead to public unrest. Although it is applied extremely rarely it shouldn't be suprising that it is quite controversial. Furthermore there are currently many countries attempting to forbid hate speech or have already done so.

Obviously this answer deals with the practical situation in reality. The theoretical view on what constitutes freedom of speech and what it ought to encompass is in the end opinion-based and therefore not touched here.

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    And there is already an obvious problem as it's ripe for abuse if applied selectively. Mild criticism (or a peaceful protest with no shouting, no looting and no arson) from one side of the political spectrum being labeled "hate speech", and a call for direct violence and destruction from the other side of the political spectrum being called "justified, because that's the only way their voices can be heard" – vsz Oct 30 '20 at 7:21
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    @vsz there is always a problem if laws are applied selectively. That doesn't mean those laws themselves are problematic. – Marc Paul Oct 30 '20 at 13:52
  • Also, don't forget the case we some time back which brought the paragraphs about "Majestätsbeleidigung" into the spotlight. I am assuming it still exists, but haven't heard much about it lately. – kutschkem Oct 30 '20 at 15:40
  • @kutschkem §103 StGB has been abolished since 01.01.2018, "Majestätsbeleidigung" no longer exists. – Polygnome Oct 30 '20 at 18:59
  • @MarcPaul Funny, thats why poll taxes and literacy tests got the axe. – Ryan_L Oct 30 '20 at 22:12
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Certainly one overriding freedom is that to mock your government, unless it falls under libel - i.e. can be shown to contain false statements.

For the rest, different countries have different rules.

  • Holocaust denial is often banned in Europe.

  • Incitation to hatred re religions, ethnic groups or sexual orientation may be banned.

  • Even in the US, with its very strong tradition of free speech, under certain conditions a crime can be upgraded to a hate crime based on proving that it was motivated by hatred, part of which will likely involve looking at a defendant's past statements.

  • Court/judicial coverage: in Canada, media coverage that could influence juries is severely limited by law during trials.

  • Election time political coverage: France has restrictions about publishing poll results in a short window of time before an election and during the election itself.

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The first thing to observe is that Freedom of Speech — in the sense the US Founders meant it — means freedom of political speech. Freedom of speech was intended to ensure that people could speak out against unjust laws, abuses of power, outright oppression, or other ills that might directly threaten a person's liberty within society. It was never meant to be an affirmative 'freedom to' right that implies one can say whatever one likes. It was 'freedom from' any overt government interference in the expression of political positions, because the Founders thought that a government which could silence opponents at will would inevitably de-evolve into tyranny.

Now, the US courts (and many courts worldwide) have traditionally taken a broad view of what constitutes 'political' speech, protecting a wide range of expressions that are only tangentially political. Generally (and with specific exceptions) courts in Liberal-democratic nations prefer to err on the side of speech, thinking it better to allow someone to say something offensive than to put the court (and by extension the government) in the position of mediating what is and is not allowable. There are still standards for slander, libel, and incitement that limit speech of particular kinds, but in the absence of direct or imminent harm, the courts are leery of interference.

Religion is a particularly difficult issue. Religious sentiments run deep, and people can get emotional about things that undercut the solemnity of their faith because attacking the integrity of their faith threatens (to their minds) eternal salvation. But even here, the protections are political in nature: the guarantees are meant to prevent the government from oppressing any particular religious belief, and to ensure that any religion which feels oppressed may make political statements to address that issue.

So, the question boils down to whether or not 'mockery' is protected political speech. It's a broadly established norm that mocking political candidates and elected officials is valid political speech (though the is one of the first norms to be broken as regimes become more authoritarian and repressive). But by that same token, mocking non-political individuals in the same public way is usually considered slander or libel, and is technically punishable under the law. Religions fall into a gray area: on one hand, religion is ostensibly private and subject to the same protections that private individuals receive; on the other hand, religions exert a tremendous amount of social and quasi-political power and thus might credibly be viewed as political figures. And there are further issues, such as whether a religion is being mocked as a form of political oppression or for some other political agenda. And of course, there's always the issue of good taste: sometimes mockery emphasizes a valid point; sometimes it's mere good fun; sometimes it's crass, vulgar hatred. The first two are acceptable while the last is pointless and undesirable, but making the distinction is difficult.

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Other posters who say that what freedom of speech entails depends on the country, respectfully, are wrong. Freedom of speech is a concept that countries either do or do not implement, to varying degrees. Ultimately it comes down to a simple question: can you say stuff that others (including those in power) don't like? So when it comes to mocking a group, as that inherently contains an opinion of said group that said group won't like, freedom of speech means it almost always must be allowed.

So for example Germany fails in having freedom of speech in a number of respects, including banning support of Nazism and Nazi propoganda, banning insults against religious groups, etc. Now it can be argued whether this is a good idea or not, but what Germany has certainly isn't is freedom of speech.

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  • What's the value in focusing on the purest form of free speech which is unrealized in the world, rather than practical implementations of it? Freedom of speech in a vacuum is rather uninteresting, it just means that anyone can say anything they want - is there anywhere that's the case? It seems like your answer to "What are the limits of freedom of speech?" is that "Freedom of speech has no limits", which in practice is far from the truth. As you point out in your second sentence, "freedom of speech" has widely varying implementations and does not mean the same thing everywhere. – Nuclear Hoagie Oct 30 '20 at 19:14
  • First, because the poster asked what freedom of speech entails. Second, many people wrongly think that almost anything qualifies as freedom of speech, when that simply isn't true. The core of freedom of speech is that 'wrong' opinions must be allowed to be said. This includes everything from LGBT advocacy to holocaust denial. And Germany (the example used by other posters) fails this repeatedly. – theresawalrus Nov 2 '20 at 14:12
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My common sense says that, if something creates anarchy in the society and nation, then that is not freedom of speech, rather that is targeted propaganda to demean a group of people or incite anger in the group. This is essentially an alias for 'marginalization'.

This whole debate of freedom-of-speech is actually becoming possible because the majority of the population in France are followers of either Christians or religion-agnostic, and that the Muslim population is weak and minority. This is just a political ploy by politicians backed by a stronger non-Muslim community. If Muslims were even 1/4 of the population, this wouldn't have been possible.

This is even impossible in the UK because of Pakistani Muslims. British people know that if they want to exercise France-style freedom-of-speech, entire Britain would be a warzone.

Example (1): If France is so much into the freedom of speech, tell them to try mocking the Armenian genocide.

Example (2): try mocking a Hindu deity in India in the name of freedom of speech.

Example (3): if Jesus Christ is mocked in the USA, that would be freedom of speech. Coz, the general population follows the Western culture and most of them do not bother about such mockery. But, if Jesus Christ is mocked in Russia ( How Russia Prosecutes For 'Insulting Religious Feelings' ) or Poland ( Polish deputy PM demands Netflix remove film depicting Jesus as gay ), that wouldn't be freedom of speech. Coz that will create anger among the general population.

Example (4): according to the core definition of Islam, the Ahmedia population are not Muslims. But, if they call themselves Muslims, and they face targeted propaganda, and persecution ensues, that is not freedom of speech.

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    I would down-vote not because I do not think like you, but because I think you are wrong. I think your example 3 (about US) contradicts your point. And Christian people are also largely mocked in France. And there are way more Muslims in France than people of Armenian descent in France... – unamourdeswann Oct 30 '20 at 21:29
  • Once you define over-broad exceptions, you have no freedom of speech. The Christian aspect, in Western countries, is a half-truth. Yes, we (Christian-originated, not necessarily practising) have reach a consensus where it's considered in bad taste (not against the law) to mock Christians. Sadly, no, mocking Muslims has not reached that consensus. On the other hand, Christians do get mocked (have a look at some of the Christ cartoons historically published in Hustler Magazine) and people do not get decapitated by angry Christians (L. Flynt's shooter was a white supremacist). – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Oct 30 '20 at 22:38
  • Over-broad exceptions: lots of countries suppress criticism of their rulers and ongoing corruption by disallowing speech that will disrupt "harmonious thoughts" or some vague phraseology like this. Re. Holocaust, while legislation banning its denial can be a point of contention, one can also say that 6M deaths later, we Christians don't want to let ourselves forget we did it. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Oct 30 '20 at 22:45
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    @user366312 Nah, mocking the Jewish religion is one of the cornerstones of Jewish culture. And there's even room to make comedy about the Holocaust, as long as you're careful to show respect for the millions of people who died. For examples of that, check out The Producers and Jojo Rabbit – divibisan Oct 30 '20 at 23:24

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