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Free Speech Case Similar to Flynt’s

WWW- “All the dimwits,” Martin Klein says, “who thought my case had nothing to do with free speech will now have to shut up or say sorry.”

Klein is a journalist from Slovakia. The dimwits are fellow journalists who he says abandoned him. They must “shut up or say sorry” because a defamation conviction against Klein — widely ignored in Slovakia — recently made it to Europe’s highest court.

Also involved, albeit indirectly, is Larry Flynt, the publisher of Hustler magazine and subject of the Milos Forman film, “The People vs. Larry Flynt.”

Klein’s troubles began in 1997 when he wrote a profanity-laced attack on the archbishop of Slovakia, who wanted the Flynt film and its poster banned. In an essay subtitled “Seven Slaps to a Hypocrite,” Klein argued in Domino Effekt, an intellectual weekly, that Archbishop Jan Sokol, who had been linked to the communist secret police, had no right to lecture the nation on morality and film. He called the archbishop an ogre, used seven vulgar words for sex, and suggested, indirectly, that Sokol had had sex with his own mother.

It was a similar attack that prompted American televangelist Jerry Falwell to sue Flynt in the 1980s: an ad parody in Hustler had portrayed Falwell having sex with his own mother in an outhouse. Flynt’s lawyers argued that a satirical cartoon can’t be libelous because a reader could not reasonably take it as fact. He won his case in the Supreme Court.

Klein — who was charged with defaming the Roman Catholic faith, rather than defaming the archbishop — argued in Slovak court that an attack on one man could not constitute an attack on an entire religion. He lost. He was fined $300 and fired from a job at Radio Free Europe.

After eight years of litigation. Klein, now 58, and his case, have made it before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. Perhaps as soon as this fall, judges there will decide if Klein’s right to free speech was violated in Slovak courts.

Klein, a bearded, balding, father of one, says he feels satisfaction at getting his day in Strasbourg, but remains angry with the “bloody cowards” in the Slovak press who “abandoned him” in 1997.

In eight years, he hasn’t held a job for more than 11 months and no nationwide Slovak paper has run an editorial defending him.

A win in Strasbourg would give him a chance to “pay off some debts,” restore his reputation as a journalist and demonstrate, he says, “You shouldn’t fear going to jail or paying a fine when you criticize someone.”

At stake in Strasbourg, however, is more than personal redemption for Klein and $20,000 in damages. Judges could decide to what extent European governments can limit speech involving religion and race.

“The state shouldn’t have dominion over our minds,” says Daniel Lipsic, Slovakia’s justice minister, an opponent of laws on defaming religion and race, otherwise known as hate-speech. “The limit should be speech that incites violence — not speech that offends.”

As justice minister, Lipsic, 32, a former student at Harvard, technically commands the lawyers that represent Slovakia in Strasbourg against Klein. But he is personally rooting for Klein. He wants hate-speech laws taken off the books in Slovakia and across Europe.

Klein’s case highlights a European debate going back hundreds of years. Jan Hus, who was burned at the stake in 1415 for challenging the Catholic church, was born not far from where Klein lives in Bratislava, Slovakia’s capital.

Death by flame no longer threatens Europe’s iconoclasts, but language that defames religion, race and nationality is banned in most European countries. You can’t buy a copy of “Mein Kampf” in Germany. You can’t say the Holocaust didn’t happen in Austria. You can’t use “abusive” words to incite religious hatred in England, according to a new law passed last month. “Once the government starts deciding what expression to allow, it never stops,” Lipsic argues.

Klein has a different view. In his case he thinks the law was misapplied. But as a self-described “model liberal” — which is like a blend of an American libertarian and an American liberal — he sees hate speech laws as an important safeguard against ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism in Europe.

“Hate speech was part of the horror of World War II,” Klein said. “Lawmakers were in their right minds when they banned it.”

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