The Electronic Intifada / March 17, 2023
In an important victory for free speech and human rights in France, a court in the eastern city of Nancy overturned a government order banning an event featuring Salah Hammouri, the Palestinian French lawyer and former political prisoner expelled by Israeli occupation authorities from his native Jerusalem in December.
The judge called the order a serious and manifestly illegal violation of the right to free speech.
The French government ban on the event in Nancy – imposed at the instigation of the Israeli embassy – was only the latest attack on Hammouri in an ongoing campaign to silence him by the administration of President Emmanuel Macron and France’s Israel lobby.
The court’s decision came down on Thursday evening just about an hour before the scheduled start of the event, titled “A son of Jerusalem expelled from the land of his birth by Israel” and co-sponsored by Association France Palestine Solidarité and Amnesty International France.
The event went ahead without incident.
Just a day earlier, the prefect of the Meurthe-et-Moselle department – a prefect is the state’s highest representative in a French region – had banned the event, citing a threat to “public order.”
This is the same pretext the government has used to try to stop Hammouri’s other appearances across France.
The prefect, Arnaud Cochet, undoubtedly acting on instructions from the interior ministry, based the claim on the fact that pro-Israel Jewish groups had announced a counter-demonstration. He also received letters from the Israeli embassy in Paris, the Israeli consulate in Strasbourg and elected officials warning of unrest if the event went ahead.
Cochet banned the pro-Israel counter-demonstration as well, however that would hardly indicate any sort of fairness.
By announcing a counter-demonstration and thus raising the possibility of violence in order to provoke the government ban, pro-Israel groups were in effect attempting to exercise what in the US context is called a “heckler’s veto” – a form of intimidation designed to shut down free speech.
As one definition puts it, a “heckler’s veto occurs when the government accepts restrictions on speech because of the anticipated or actual reactions of opponents of the speech.”
US courts, including the Supreme Court, have consistently ruled that such government restrictions violate the US Constitution’s First Amendment guarantee of free speech.
In France, the law allows much broader government restrictions on speech in the face of an alleged threat to public order, but any measures restricting speech must be “necessary, suitable and proportionate” to meet that threat.
The court in Nancy ruled that the government’s action in no way met these conditions and that the ban on Hammouri’s appearance was “a serious and manifestly illegal violation of the freedom of expression and association.”
The judge also noted that no evidence had been presented that Hammouri had made any statements in any of his public appearances in other parts of France that could be construed as inciting disorder.
“It is clear that the interior ministry lends a willing ear to the demands of the Israeli embassy and CRIF [France’s main Israel lobby group], and to the agitation and pressure from local pro-Israel groups who cannot tolerate the idea that years of judicial harassment, repeated imprisonment and then his expulsion by Israel to France in December, have not succeeded in silencing this tireless advocate of the Palestinian cause,” Association France Palestine Solidarité said on Friday.
While Hammouri was still in Israeli detention without charge or trial awaiting expulsion from his Palestinian homeland, French authorities repeatedly told Israel that he “must be allowed to exercise all of his rights and live a normal life in Jerusalem, the city where he was born and where he resides.”
But since his expulsion to France, the Macron administration has colluded with Israel and France’s powerful Israel lobby in a concerted campaign to try to smear and silence Hammouri by pressuring venues to cancel his appearances or banning them outright.
This effort, as the administrative court in Nancy confirmed, includes illegal restrictions on free speech and association that have no place in any country purporting to be a democracy.
Palestine solidarity groups called for a rally in Paris on Friday to defend free speech and demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle.
Ali Abunimah is executive director of The Electronic Intifada