Who is free from public comment?
France's freedom of expression is being challenged in court – by teachers.
France is known for its great restaurants. Chefs are singled out and graded by anonymous critics who award or withdraw stars to their restaurants. So seriously are these grades taken that from time to time a chef will commit suicide upon losing a star. Yet no starless chef has ever turned to the French judicial courts for relief from this scrutiny. Recently a more sensitive group, one that enjoys tenure for life, sought and won deliverance from their critics in a French court.
A website went live in January allowing students in France to grade their teachers online based on six specific criteria such as motivation, interest, and clarity. The teachers were named. The students, for obvious reasons, remained anonymous.
This did not go over well with teachers. The main teachers' union sued to shut down the site, and a French trial court ruled in its favor, citing that freedom of speech ends when it affects teaching and that an uncensored discussion forum risked "becoming polemical."
The practice of students grading their teachers began long before the Internet, but did not seem to have given rise to litigation. The worldwide reach of the Internet, though, has raised the ante.
Another site that has gained recent popularity in France is one for posting anonymous evaluations of doctors. Lawyers, dentists, accountants, veterinarians, perhaps even judges, cannot be far behind. They, too, may be subject to globally published appraisals. Is this a good or bad thing? Is it an exercise in freedom of speech or an invasion of a right to be free from public comment?
Freedom of expression is guaranteed in France and the other 46 countries of the Council of Europe by the European Convention on Human Rights, which states that "this right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas." Of course, there are well-known exceptions in Europe as in the United States. Defaming others, inciting violence, or, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote, "to shout fire in a crowded theater" are off limits.