As every young American is taught (or used to be taught) the Constitution’s First Amendment protects free speech. “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”
We can say whatever we want. And that’s as it should be. Societies constraining the freedom of speech have invariably slid by degrees from centralized authoritarian control to totalitarian despotism. Dissent is silenced. Liberty dies.
But do First Amendment liberties imply a corresponding civic duty, a responsibility to voluntarily restrain ourselves; to understand that words have consequences?
In January, 1945 Paris had been liberated for five months, but German armies still contested pockets in Alsace-Lorraine and the Atlantic coast. Even though the Vichy government had been routed and de Gaulle’s provisional government had assumed power, Paris was a haunted, anxious place. Apprehension and revenge were still in the air.
Most of the summary justice and settling of scores were over. The French legal system had been restored. If there was any further retribution meted out to collaborators it would be done legally, adhering to tradition and law. It was in this atmosphere that judges, attorneys and a jury assembled at the Palace of Justice on Ile de la Cite, mere steps from Notre Dame Cathedral, to begin a trial to ask and answer a central question: Do words matter?
During the Nazi occupation tens of thousands of Jews were arrested, transferred to detention camps and thereafter loaded on to trains to the East. As the world later learned, most were murdered in Auschwitz. By early 1945, Vichy officials directly responsible for these crimes had been tried, convicted, executed or imprisoned. Others were in hiding or had already fled the country.
What made the trial just starting at le Cite so unusual was that the defendant, facing the death penalty, had had no direct part in any of these crimes. He was not a politician, a policeman, a government functionary, a jailer or even an informer. In fact, he was never accused of reporting on the whereabouts of a Jew in hiding, of revealing the true identity of a Jew posing as a non-Jew or in “fingering” anyone. The defendant was on trial for the words he wrote.
Robert Brasillach had been the editor of the collaborationist Je Suis Partout (I Am Everywhere) during the Occupation. In this role he penned a host of pro-German and anti-Semitic essays noted for their vitriol.
The questions before the convened jury as well as French public opinion were these: Were Robert Brasillach’s words, both spoken and written, responsible for the actions of others? Did Brasillach provide the moral, ethical and philosophical rationale for the crimes of the Vichy government, their politicians, functionaries and enforcers? Did his words incite vigilantes and individuals in acts of intimidation and violence against ordinary Parisians accused of undermining the regime or participating in the Resistance?
In other words, can the person who encourages violence be held accountable for the violent actions of the person so encouraged?
Due to the protections of the First Amendment cited above, US citizens are shielded from government interference with the irresponsible expression of their free speech. But that doesn’t imply they are immune to fierce criticism and censure from their fellow citizens.
In countries without equivalent Constitutional protections, as was the case in France in 1945, the State could circumscribe limits on speech and could exact legal punishments for infractions. The prosecution in his trial argued that Brasillach’s years long series of published jeremiads had poisoned the atmosphere and resulted in harm, indeed death, to others.
Brasillach was an important literary figure in France, a member of its intellectual elite, which was split on his fate. Jean-Paul Sartre and others argued that the writer/artist is always responsible for what he writes or says and must be held accountable by society and law. Albert Camus and other prominent writers, artists and journalists argued that the writer/artist must never be constrained or subject to censorship or retribution in any way, regardless of what he says or writes, because to do so would be to weaken the exercise of free expression, which is the foundation of a free society.
In the event, as the jury was stocked with veterans of the Resistance and the judge had been tainted by his previous association with the Vichy regime, the verdict was not surprising: guilty. The sentence: death by firing squad.
Many of those who had argued for Brasillach’s culpability were appalled, appealing to de Gaulle to commute the sentence. It was signed by many of France’s greatest writers and artists: Francois Mauriac, Paul Valery, Jean Cocteau, Colette, Arthur Honegger, Jean Anouilh. De Gaulle gave it a momentary glance; then turned it down. “The intellectuals also have their responsibilities,” he said. Brasillach was executed the next day.
Robert Brasillach remains one of very few citizens in free Western societies to be executed for “intellectual crimes” rather than military or political actions. His sensational trial is worth remembering at this particularly contentious and potentially dangerous moment in our own national saga.
As Americans we would never countenance the State to intervene in the limitation of free speech or in acts of coercion or retribution against any citizen because of what they said or wrote. As Richard Corliss wrote about the travesty of the Brasillach trial, “A writer who loses his soul is not as dangerous as a nation that loses its mind.” In any case, the First Amendment constrains the government from doing so.
But it still begs the question. Even if Brasillach should not have suffered the death sentence for his writings, did his words kill? We’re not going to jail or execute writers for their words, however incendiary. But de Gaulle’s assertion remains, as a matter of moral if not legal responsibility.
Does it matter when Kathy Griffin holds up, Isis style, the bloody severed head of the president of the United States; that Madonna speaks at a rally, “I’ve thought lot of blowing up the White House;” that Snoop Dog shoots Trump in the head in a music video; that Joss Whedon tweets “I want a Rhino to f*ck Paul Ryan to death;” that Oscar winner Mickey Rourke threatens to beat Trump with a baseball bat; that Marilyn Manson kills Trump in a music video; that a ham-fisted production of Shakespeare’s play stages an exceptionally brutal assassination with Caesar cast as a blond coiffed Trump (to the approving cheers of the Central Park audience)?
If Brasillach’s words incited emotionally susceptible Parisians to turn in their Jewish neighbors, to snitch on members of the Resistance or murder dissenters of the Vichy regime; could the images and words of Hollywood celebrities, media pundits or unrestrained partisan politicians have helped incite James Hodgkinson to attempt mass murder at a baseball park in Virginia?