Serb ultranationalist leader Vojislav Seselj waves at supporters ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images

Where Free Speech Ends

The recent conviction of Vojislav Šešelj for inciting war crimes with a speech he delivered in the former Yugoslavia in 1992 will have little impact on Šešelj himself. But the decision underscores an important principle: when it comes to criminalizing speech and prosecuting speakers, it is context, not content, that matters.

NEW YORK – I have long defended freedom of speech for all, even those expressing the most appalling views. Yet I applauded when a United Nations court sentenced Vojislav Šešelj, a Serbian politician, to ten years in prison for inciting war crimes with a nationalist speech in the former Yugoslavia during the early 1990s.

Freedom of speech is a fundamental human right. That is why, when I was the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in 1977, I defended that right for a group calling themselves American Nazis, who wanted to hold a demonstration in Skokie, Illinois – home to a large number of Holocaust survivors.

The ensuing dispute ended up involving several court cases, all of which the ACLU won. In the wake of that battle, which aroused controversy for years after it concluded, some applauded my defense of free speech; others viewed it with revulsion. But if I were faced with the same situation today, I would not hesitate to take the same position.

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