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France Constitutional Court strikes down most of online hate speech law

The French Constitutional Court on Thursday reversed most of an online hate speech law, known as the ‘Avia Law,’ which was passed by the French National Assembly on May 13. “The requesting senators argue that these provisions […] would have been in violation of Article 45 of the Constitution,” says the ruling. “These provisions would impose on all publishers and hosts subjugations impossible to satisfy and would, in doing so, disregard the principle of equality before public charges.”

The Avia Law was passed with the intent to fine social media platforms that allow content such as child pornography, terrorism, or genocide denial if they do not remove the content within 24 hours. It was inspired by similar anti-hate speech laws throughout Europe and Africa.

The Constitutional Court found issues with the Avia Law’s application as it conflicts with many of France’s founding ideals and constitutional provisions. Thursday’s decision also cited The Rights of Man and Citizen (1789), which states that “The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law.” The Constitutional Court also argued that free discourse on social media is vital for the maintenance of a democratic society.

Civil liberties advocates celebrated the Constitutional Court’s decision. Christoph Schmon, international policy director at The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the largest online liberties watchdogs, noted that “We applaud the court for recognizing that citizens’ rights of free speech and expression are paramount in a democratic society […] Any government effort to censor objectionable content must be balanced with people’s rights to air their views on politics, the government, and the news. This bill failed to strike that balance.” The EFF filed an amicus brief with the Constitutional Court after the Avia Law’s original passage in May.

Although it rejected most of the Avia Law, the Constitutional Court also noted in its ruling that it did decide to uphold Article 2 of the law, which modifies procedures for reporting illegal content to websites. Additionally, it partially upheld Article 6, which establishes a platform’s authority to police content. Furthermore, the court stressed that it supports the law’s mission to counter child pornography and terrorism on the Internet, but disagreed with its methods.

Despite the court’s support of the Avia Law’s goals, most of the law was still declared unconstitutional. The court stressed that “Freedom of expression and communication is all the more precious since its exercise is a condition of democracy,” because that privilege “guarantees respect [for] other rights and freedoms.”