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Why is Switzerland jailing homophobes?

The imprisonment of the odious Alain Soral sets a dangerous precedent.

Andrea Seaman

Topics Free Speech World

Making anti-gay comments in Switzerland could now land you with a 60-day jail sentence and a hefty fine.

This is what has happened to Alain Bonnet, a 65-year-old Franco-Swiss polemicist who uses the pseudonym Alain Soral. In 2022, Soral released a video calling a female Swiss journalist a ‘fat lesbian’ and an ‘unhinged queer activist’. He was initially convicted of defamation and given a fine by a court in the canton of Vaud. Soral then appealed the decision, claiming it was unjust. The state prosecutor also appealed, claiming the judgement was insufficiently severe.

In October, the Vaud cantonal court ruled that the original punishment was not enough. It found Soral guilty of discrimination and incitement to hatred, and promptly sent him to jail for two months.

Soral might now turn to the highest Swiss court for a further appeal. And if that fails, he may then take his case to the European Court of Human Rights. Either way, it doesn’t look hopeful for him.

There’s no doubt that Soral is a deeply unpleasant figure. He was convicted in France in 2019 of Holocaust denial, he brags about how he beats people up in clubs and he considers himself an expert on how to have sex with as many women as possible. Yet if freedom of speech is to mean anything at all, it must also mean freedom of speech for those whose views we find objectionable.

Soral’s conviction sheds light on the dire state of free speech in Switzerland. Above all, it exposes the folly of Switzerland’s decision in 2019 to make homosexuality a protected characteristic under the law. This legal change, voted for in a referendum, was always likely to lay the groundwork for the criminalisation of homophobic ‘hate speech’. And so it has proved.

Soral’s statements were obnoxious, but they should not be a crime. Sadly, too few in the Swiss public sphere have been willing to defend his right to be offensive. Even the Swiss media outlets that usually pride themselves on their opposition to woke authoritarianism and cancel culture have been pretty much silent.

Take the news portal, Nebelspalter, which means ‘Clearer of the fog’. It claims to be ‘liberal to the point of bursting’, and to ‘believe in free will and free people’. Yet it has said nothing about the imprisonment of a man for the crime of saying offensive things.

Then there’s the right-leaning Weltwoche, which poses as fiercely anti-woke and pro-liberty. The magazine is run by Roger Köppel, a member of parliament for the right-wing populists, the Swiss People’s Party. Since Soral’s first conviction in 2022, it has seen fit to publish only one 200-word article on his case. And that was little more than a factual news report, which concluded with a quote from LGBT campaigners Pink Cross, claiming Soral’s imprisonment sends a ‘strong signal that not everything is allowed in Switzerland and that there are limits to hatred’. Weltwoche seemingly sees nothing wrong with sending people to jail for speech crimes.

For too many on the left and right, their commitment to free speech vanishes when they are confronted with someone whose views they disagree with. And so the state is given licence to suppress and imprison people for what they say and think. This represents a serious threat to Swiss citizens’ most fundamental freedom – the freedom to speak their minds.

All is not lost, however. Thanks to Switzerland’s constitution, there is always a chance to repeal or change legislation through a referendum, if over 100,000 request it. We have a golden opportunity to overturn the very laws that have led to Soral’s imprisonment.

But if we want to have any hope of rolling back these draconian speech restrictions in the near future, we need to start making the hard arguments now. We need to fight for the right to be offensive all over again. And we need to make clear that free speech is absolute or it is nothing.

Andrea Seaman is a writer based in Switzerland.

Picture by: YouTube.

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Topics Free Speech World

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