Now There's a Law That's Sure To Reduce Ethnic and Religious Tensions:

BBC reports:An Arab organisation [the Arab European League] is to be put on trial in the Netherlands over its publication of a cartoon deemed offensive to Jews, prosecutors say....

Dutch prosecutors said the AEL cartoon was "discriminatory" and "offensive to Jews as a group ... because it offends Jews on the basis of their race and/or religion".

The cartoon shows two men standing near a pile of bones at "Auswitch" (sic). One says "I don't think they're Jews".

The other replies: "We have to get to the six million somehow."

A spokeswoman for the prosecuting authority said the group could be fined up to 4,700 euros (£4,100), though in theory a prison sentence was also possible....

Naturally, the AEL is complaining about how this is supposedly inconsistent with the Dutch prosecutors' decision not to prosecute Geert Wilders for making the movie Fitna, which initially included the Mohammed cartoons. And the complaint seems plausible: Though one could distinguish Holocaust denial cartoons from the Mohammed cartoons on the theory that the former convey false historical statements of fact and the latter convey moral judgments or evaluative opinions, that doesn't seem to be a distinction that the quoted law draws, or that most general "hate speech" laws draw.

But beyond this, even if subtle distinctions can be drawn, at least a nation like the U.S. can respond to those who demand censorship of the Mohammed cartoons with a simple principle: We protect religiously and racially offensive ideas and images because that's what our constitutional law demands, and Jews, Christians, and Muslims all have to deal with that. But once one starts to draw subtle distinctions about which racially and religiously offensive ideas and images are sufficiently "hate speech" or sufficiently "offensive to ... a group" and "discriminatory," one sows more racial and religious discord than one avoids: Groups either fall into censorship envy, or resent the legal system and other groups more for the freedom that those others are seen as possessing.

It seems to me quite clear that many ideas can be quite harmful. That includes many racially or religiously bigoted ideas, but also advocacy of Communist revolution, most other advocacy of violence, historical conspiracy theories, and a wide range of other ideas. The particular harm caused by each such statement can be hard to identify. But much harmful behavior, such as the 9/11 attacks, race riots, and many other crimes would not have taken place without speech that made such behavior seem permissible and even laudable to the criminals. Some crimes, such as crimes of rage or sexual jealousy or greed might happen largely independently of ideological advocacy, and likely happened even before language evolved; but ideological crimes have ideological advocacy as an important cause.

I support protection for such ideas, though, because it seems to me that trying to suppress them through the force of law on balance tends to be more harmful than helpful. That's partly because the government is likely to abuse such suppressive powers, by suppressing the valuable speech as well as the harmful. But beyond that, attempts at such suppression -- which will rarely be particularly effective in any event, especially given modern technology -- are likely to arouse many of the same hostilities that the suppression is aimed at abating. This sort of prosecution strikes me as an excellent example of that phenomenon.

Thanks to First Amendment Law Prof Blog for the pointer.