It seems like every time we read about a freedom of speech case in the news, it's about either porn, racism or talking smack about the government. Now all of those are enjoyable things, but think about it. Speech is such a broad, unlimited medium, so why is it that when people are fighting for the infinite possibilities allowed by this freedom, it always ends up being about boobs and politics?
It's never about, like, pies or something.
Can't we have legal controversies over sillier and more anticlimactic speech issues? Well, it turns out we can. If we Americans can stop being so self-centered for a moment and look around abroad, we can find a wealth of weird old free speech issues, like:
Just the other week, a Taiwanese blogger was sentenced to 30 days detention, two years probation and about $7,000 USD in fines for ripping into a shitty restaurant on her blog.
Now, a couple of caveats -- she probably will get out of the jail time, and the verdict wasn't mainly about her review of the food so much as the fact she exaggerated how unsanitary the conditions were. However, the judge actually took into consideration in his ruling the fact that it was unfair for her to claim the restaurant's food was too salty since she only tried one dish, which sounds like something a mom should be saying, not a judge.
"And you didn't even eat any of the vegetables!"
A lot of people have been blogging about this and lumping it in with other cases where people have been sued for bad restaurant reviews, which is really unfair to Taiwan, because in all those other cases it was a civil suit filed by the restaurant owner (and almost never won by the restaurant), whereas this was a criminal case with the cops and the jail and everything. Taiwan's actual government has actually arrested and convicted someone for saying a restaurant was a filthy shithole with oversalted dishes, and I think that's something few other governments can brag about.
Yep, that's a challenge, Singapore.
Ireland came close when a restaurant owner sued The Irish News over a restaurant review and won. The law apparently only protects negative opinions if they're "honestly held," and they managed to prove somehow (polygraph? truth serum?) that the critic didn't honestly think the food was shitty.
But again, that was a civil suit, and moreover, one that was overturned on appeal, once the case went in front of somebody sane.
So Taiwan remains the leader here, although I think America can beat them if we find some excuse to jail Armond "Transformers 2 Was Better Than Toy Story 3" White, which really is just a noble goal in itself.
Here in the U.S., if you want to name your baby Kal-El or Pilot Inspektor or Moxie Crimefighter or Moon Unit or Jermajesty or Miller Lyte or ESPN or GoldenPalaceDotCom, you can go right on ahead.
Is that a good thing? I'll leave that to the politicians and crazy celebrities. The point is that you don't face any penalties other than the entire country laughing at you.
And if they're already doing that anyway, who cares?
But it's not the same deal in other countries, especially in many European countries, where I guess a child's right not to be laughed at for the rest of their lives trumps a parent's right to free speech.
In Germany, you can't give a kid an invented name, and you can't name it something gender-ambiguous. If we had a law like that, you'd have to say goodbye to all the Terrys and Caseys and Peytons, as well as your DeShawns and Latonyas and Rainbow Sunbeams, and celebrities would probably stop having (or adopting) children.
Prince Amukamara, the New York Giants' first round draft pick, would have been shot at birth. I think. I assume that's how the law works.
Other countries reject any name that would be "stupid" or make your child a "laughingstock" (well, the laws technically consist of some legalese that basically says that), or would offend people. New Zealand rejected 4Real on those grounds. Sweden rejected Ikea and Metallica, but later caved on Metallica (a girl if you were wondering).
And why not? Metallica is a great way for kids to get started on metal.
Denmark is even more Orwellian, with a list of 7,000 approved names you have to pick from, and anything outside that list requires approval by both the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs and the Ministry of Family and Consumer Affairs, which honestly, sound like Harry Potter government offices. Apparently this labyrinthine system was created in the 1960s when someone tried to name their daughter "Tessa," and someone else noted that it sounded like "tisse," the Danish word for piss. There was a big to-do, somebody made some laws and now you have to name your kid off a list.
On the one hand, that sounds rigid as hell. On the other hand, it would have prevented Moxie Crimefighter. Tough call.
Americans and other English speakers are accustomed to carte blanche when incorporating a melange of new words and foreign words into the language, making use of other languages to describe genres of art like film noir or art deco or avant-garde, or roles like chef or fiancee. Don't expect that kind of laissez-faire attitude in France, which goes to great lengths to keep foreign words from creeping into the French language where they would no doubt steal jobs from hard-working French words.
Word immigrants are pretty sneaky.
The French Word Police isn't going to break down people's doors and stop them from saying "cool" or "le week-end" (that's real French slang, by the way), but they forbid foreign words from being used in official documents, science papers, advertising, radio and television, and fine companies from $150 to $1,000 for making such a faux pas.
Sacre bleu! Someone's getting fined.
In 2008, they showed they were "with it" and banning things that mattered to the French youth of today by letting everyone know it was not OK to say email, blog or podcast, so that hip French podcasters would have to ask people to download their "diffusion pour baladeur," and sound like a dork. And instead of using "corner," sportscasters were expected to use the pithy phrase "coup de pied de coin," by which time the goal would already be scored and everyone would be on the other side of the field.
I'm referring to soccer, of course, or as the Europeans call it, "cricket."
The reason behind all these laws is that France wants to protect its language from a barrage of invading foreign words, and "make sure [French] does not disappear from the international world of business, economics and science." Because once you start letting foreign words into your language, that's pretty much the coup de grace for your culture, since historically, all languages that have incorporated foreign words have, de facto, disappeared into irrelevance. C'est la vie, I guess.