Belgian Court Jails Activist Over Group Chat

group chat
Judges gavel | Image by Witthaya Prasongsin/Getty Images

A Belgian court sentenced a former politician and political activist to a year in prison for promoting “racist, hateful, Nazi and negationist speech” through his organization’s group chat — a decision one expert said should worry American tourists traveling overseas.

Dries Van Langenhove, a former Belgian parliamentarian, was sentenced to prison, while five other members of the activist group he led were given suspended sentences. Two of those activists are also members of the right-wing Flemish Interest party that is expected to make gains in elections this year, the Associated Press reported. The case centered on a group chat where the activists allegedly pushed racist and extremist ideas, often through memes.

“The defendant raved about Nazi ideology, which has caused and continues to cause untold suffering to countless people. The file showed that he wants to undermine democratic society and replace it with a social model of white supremacy,” Judge Jan Van den Berghe said, according to AP.

Van Langenhove slammed the ruling as an attack on freedom and humor.

“A years-long investigation, on which the Justice Department wasted millions of euros of taxpayers’ money, shows that the … activists cannot be charged with anything other than some memes. Humor. Memes that I didn’t even post myself,” Van Langenhove argued, per AP.

Hans von Spakovsky, a senior legal fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a former member of the Federal Election Commission and Department of Justice, said the Belgian ruling is unthinkable in the United States.

“The idea that the government has the ability to judge whether your speech is unacceptable and can arrest you for it, that is something that would never fly in the United States,” he told The Dallas Express.

“There’s all kind of people out there capable of speech that I don’t agree with and I don’t like, but there are First Amendment rights,” he continued. “So unless you are urging or imminently inciting people to commit violent crimes, you can’t be arrested and criminally prosecuted because what you say is racist or bigoted or however you want to classify it. That’s the way it should be.”

However, von Spakovsky warned Americans could face similar charges when traveling to countries with weak free speech protections and politicized agendas.

“Americans often have this naive feeling of immunity because they’re American citizens in a foreign country, and they don’t seem to understand that when you’re over there, you may be a tourist, but you’re a subject of their laws,” he told The Dallas Express.

This concern, he said, applies to tourists and even political experts who may engage in speaking gigs in other countries.

Von Spakovsky pointed to the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case on whether federal government agencies are permitted to pressure social media companies to censor content. The federal government allegedly deployed these tactics in recent years to stifle and outright ban content critical of vaccines and mask mandates.

“That is to me a dangerous development in this country — it could take us down this road that Europe already has,” he told The Dallas Express. “If it goes the wrong way, then the Supreme Court would be saying it’s okay for federal government agencies to secretly work behind the scenes to censor the accounts of Americans whose opinions they disagree with, whose facts they claim are wrong. That brings us down the road to the society that George Orwell wrote about in 1984.”

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