“Victory for freedom of speech”: Geert Wilders acquitted of hate speech by Dutch court

Today, Dutch politician Geert Wilders was acquitted of inciting hatred of Muslims after a three-year prosecution. Wilders, leader of the Freedom Party (the third-largest political party in the Netherlands), is known for his outspoken criticism of Islam and immigration in the Netherlands.

The presiding judge said that Wilders’s oratory was “on the edge of what is legally permissible” and sometimes “hurtful” or “shocking,” but found that his statements (including the movie Fitna) were made in the context of a political and public debate about Muslim integration and multiculturalism. The speech at issue, therefore, was not criminal. Additionally, the court determined that because Wilders’s remarks were about Islam and not Muslims—they referred to a religion rather than a group or individuals—the statements did not incite hatred or discrimination against people (Muslims).

De Rechtspraak, the website of the Dutch Judiciary and the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, issued a press release summarizing the verdict. It can be downloaded here.

Wilders told reporters, "This is not so much a win for myself, but a victory for freedom of speech. Fortunately you can criticize Islam and not be gagged in public debate."

This acquittal is likewise a victory against lawfare—lawfare, that is, in the form of “hate speech” lawsuits predatorily filed to silence individuals and, on a broader scale, to chill the free exchange of ideas and public discourse. As Wilders acknowledges, this holding establishes judicial precedent that a democratically elected member of the government will not be punished and should not be prosecuted for speaking to his constituents on matters of national security. In the struggle to protect free speech, a fundamental tenet of liberal democracies, today’s holding will hopefully influence courts worldwide to dismiss future lawsuits of this nature, ultimately discouraging proponents of lawfare from filing them in the first place.

Update: In response to Wilders’s acquittal, the OIC Secretary General released a statement alleging that Wilders “has taken upon himself a dangerous path of derailing inter civilizational harmony and peace by spreading and fanning hatred against Islam and Muslims in his own country as well as in other European countries.” He further stated that “the vilification of Islam and the sacred image of the Prophet Muhammad by Wilders has reached a stage when it can no longer be tolerated under any pretext including the right to freedom of expression.”

The Secretary General’s response patently demonstrates his opposition to free speech, a cornerstone of which is the right to critique and criticize government and religion. Under the pretext of promoting “inter civilizational harmony and peace,” free speech would be stifled, impeding our ability to openly discuss national security threats. As we have discussed before, this end result is a common goal of lawfare proponents.

Update: On July 6, 2011, Wilders composed seven Parliamentary questions for the Dutch Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs regarding the OIC’s statement. In these questions, Wilders repeatedly describes the OIC’s statements as “intimidating” and calls upon the Dutch government to explain to the OIC member countries that “criticism of Islam and freedom of speech are [sic] essential in a democratic society under the rule of law.” Ultimately, Wilders asks the Dutch Parliament to distance itself from and denounce the OIC secretary general’s statement and to declare it “hypocritic[al] and despicable.”