Freedom of speech in Hungary

The right to express one’s opinions, however repugnant they might be, is almost unlimited in Hungary. The lawmakers consciously copied the American practice in this regard. The U.S. Supreme Court in 1919 (Schenck versus United States) in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. stated: "The question in every case is whether the words used are used in such circumstances and are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that Congress has a right to prevent." In plain language, unless there is a clear danger of immediate, substantive, evil results, a person can say anything his heart desires. In practical terms, if an "orator" in front of even thousands of people says hateful things about Jews, Gypsies, whomever, he can do so. According to U.S. law, however, if he exhorts his listeners to take up arms, follow him, and kill the appointed target, this speech is not protected.

In Hungary, hate speech against a group is protected speech. Only those persons mentioned specifically by name can bring civil action in a case involving an attack on human dignity. Thus, if a rabblerouser gets on a podium and rants in unspeakable terms about Jews or Gypsies in general, no one belonging to these groups can do anything about it. This is what the Hungarian government would like to change: an individual belonging to a group could sue even if he is not specifically mentioned by name. The president doesn’t know yet whether he would sign such a law. It all depends on whether he finds the new law constitutional. And knowing the Hungarian constitutional scholars, judges, and the president himself, it is very possible that the answer will be negative.

And now let’s examine an interesting case. The culprit again is Lóránt Hegedűs, Jr. I am not going to go into details of his background because I talked about the whole family at length in my blog, "Churches and politics: The case of Budakeszi" (August 1, 2007). Suffice to say that he is a Calvinist minister in charge of one of the largest congregations in Pest, strategically located on Szabadság Square downtown, close to Parliament. The members of the congregation seem to be people who sympathize with the radical right. From the strange outfits, military uniforms of unknown origin, the excited clappings at every antisemitic remark, it is clear to me that this crowd belongs to that relatively small group of people whom I called the "lunatic fringe." But interestingly enough, they look so normal. With the notable exception of the strange uniforms. I highly recommend that you listen to the good minister’s speech (http://tinyurl.com/2hxzhj). Christian love is conspicuously missing.

The occasion was October 23 and the unveiling of four busts: those of Kossuth, Horthy, the writer Dezső Szabó (more about him further down), and Albert Wass, another writer. Kossuth doesn’t quite belong to this conservative-right radical group, and I’m a bit puzzled why our Calvinist minister picked him.

Hegedűs’s speech was short but potent. He was sending an indignant message to Shimon Peres, who had recently made a speech to a group of Israeli businessmen in which he spoke approvingly of their importance in the world economy. He obviously half jokingly said that soon they would be able to buy all of Manhattan, Hungary, and Poland. Once the news of these remarks reached Hungary, the Hungarian antisemitic right’s reaction was predictable. The speech contains all the stock phrases of the Hungarian right: foreigners try to eliminate the Hungarians, try to ruin the country, they will be slaves in their own country. Yes, said Hegedűs, the Jews had already bought Manhattan, but they will never buy Poland. They have been trying to buy Hungary but his message to Shimon Peres was what the poet Sándor Petőfi (1823-1849) said to the Austrians: "Occupy your fucking mother but not our fatherland!" The somewhat suprised audience was delighted.

After Hegedűs’s speech came a young man who apparently is preparing himself for the stage. He read a fairly lengthy antisemitic piece but kept the authorship quiet until the very end. It turned out to be Dezső Szabó (1879-1945), an influential and controversial writer. Today his most famous novel, The Swept Away Village (1919), is almost unreadable, and only a couple of his shorter novellas show any literary talent. He was much more influential as a political writer. He was a complex character who, when he was young, belonged to liberal literary circles to such an extent that he even welcomed the short lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. However, after the fall of Béla Kun and the Soviet Republic, he turned to the right and toward antisemitism. The development of his antisemitism was much more complex than Hegedűs’s audience would have learned from this reading. Szabó eventually feared the Germans a great deal more than the Jews and admitted that at least "the Jews mean culture and progress." He even wrote a book against antisemitism (Critique of Antisemitism). As one of his commentators said, his antisemitism was schizophrenic. Antisemitic tirades can easily be found in Szabó’s writing. Perhaps even worse than the one the young aspiring actor read. However, up to date Hegedűs’s speech and the excerpts from Szabó were the worst antisemitic outbursts in public by a well known public figure. (Hegedűs was member of parliament between 1998-2002, representing the antisemitic MIÉP of István Csurka.) In any case our minister’s answer to the outcry: "As far as I know Szabó is not on index. Neither is Petőfi. Sue them." These people know what they are doing and the opposing majority and the courts, even if they had better laws, can be quite helpless.

The John Wesley Theological Seminary (a small Methodist divinity school) called upon the leaders of the Hungarian Reformed Church to express their disapproval of one of their ministers’ behavior. There are already a number of people who signed the letter and they are expecting further letters at felhivas.3@gmail.com. One can certainly sign the letter, most likely I will too, but I doubt that the church will do anything. What really upset me watching this video: young boys and girls listening to this hate speech coming from a Christian minister. What will happen to them?