John Galliano and the future of hate speech

By Laura MacPhee

This time last year, John Galliano was preparing to make his “triumphant return” to London Fashion Week as one of the most celebrated designers in the world. Since then, his reputation has disintegrated at an astonishing rate. Once described as “fashion’s great romantic”, his behaviour has earned him some rather less flattering labels. This week saw the conclusion of his trial at the Palais de Justice  in Paris. He was convicted of making “casting public insults based on origin, religious affiliation, race or ethnicity” during two ruinous exchanges.

The scandal erupted when he was arrested on 25 February this year, and the details of his outbursts came to light. This marked the beginning of his spectacular downfall, which saw him fired from his position as chief designer at Christian Dior on 1 March. His sentencing today is the latest development in one of the biggest controversies to shake the fashion industry in recent years. But it has raised a number of wider reaching questions about how hate speech is handled.

This is one situation in which even liberal democracies are willing to accept some limitations on freedom of expression. There are some obvious reasons for this, the most compelling of which relate to consistency and deterrence. Certainty and predictability are vital aspects of the rule of law. As such, it follows that the law should punish the threat of violence equally robustly, whether that threat takes the form of a raised fist or vicious words. Race and religion are inherent to a person’s identity and integrity, which is what makes them such exceptionally sensitive territory.

The deterrence point is more politically grounded. I would not generally be in favour of speech being punishable purely because it was offensive, but the practical and political implications of hate speech cannot be ignored. Indeed, much of the legislation on hate speech has been enacted after major political events. The Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006, for example, has been framed as a legislative response to the 7/7 terrorist attacks on London.

There are countless examples from around the world which show exactly how damaging racial tensions can be. In the European context, an intense fear of anti-Semitism and its consequences is understandable. That is why figures such as the Thilo Sarrazin and Henryk Broder are so singularly reviled.

What Galliano said to the women involved was undeniably deplorable. No one is seeking to defend the views he expressed. Today’s decision, however, could indicate an ideological departure from the post-WW2 horror at this type of speech towards a more lenient approach. When he was originally arrested, he knew that he could face up to six months in prison. Instead, he was given suspended fines of €6,000 and compelled to pay a symbolic fine of €1 to the women, as well as paying the legal costs of five anti-racist organisations who brought the case against him. As his lawyer remarked: “(The decision) amounts to no penalty.”

Of course there were mitigating circumstances in the individual case, so it is too early to detect whether this actually is the start of a new judicial trend. For example, the court took into account Galliano’s apologies at his hearing in June. The judges may also have recognised that losing his chief designer role was a very severe penalty, which meant that he had suffered enough for his actions. Galliano himself asked them to consider his physical and mental state at the time of the incidents.

Whatever influence these factors had on the sentencing, anti-racist organisations may well view this outcome as dismissive. Even if they acknowledge that Galliano could end up paying substantial legal costs, the ostensible message is that the law is becoming more forgiving in such cases. Whether this is true or not remains to be seen.


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