When do insults and hate speech become punishable offences?

Although they may be shocking, disturbing or hurtful, many statements or insults fall within freedom of speech. This freedom is not unlimited, however. In the four situations described below, public insults or statements can effectively be punishable offences.

Was the perpetrator motivated by hatred, contempt or hostility towards someone on the grounds of one of the protected criteria? Then this is considered a reprehensible motive and the perpetrator can be given a harsher penalty.  

1. The public insult is expressed through text or imagery

When do insults and hate speech become punishable offences?

Example

A person who had written graffiti in the stairwell of an apartment building in black pen with the words “whore” and “niggers fuck niggers”, and an arrow pointing to the victim’s apartment.

In Belgium, it is an offence to publicly insult someone through acts, text, pictures or symbolic imagery. This does not include strictly verbal insults targeting ordinary citizens.

Important: a complaint can only be filed by the individual who was personally insulted.

2. The verbal insults are aimed at public authorities

When do insults and hate speech become punishable offences?

Example

A driver stopped by the police who calls one of the police officers a “Sale flic d'arabe de merde.” (Dirty Arab sh*t copper)

In this case, representatives of public authority or public power are involved, such as police officers, judges, …

3. The perpetrator intentionally and publicly incites others to discrimination, hatred, violence or segregation

When do insults and hate speech become punishable offences?

Examples

  • A street preacher who described homosexuality as an abomination, and equated it to paedophilia and bestiality.
  • A man who subjected a woman in a bakery to a tirade, including statements such as “you should integrate here, we have to keep out Islam, Islam is the worst thing there is, …”
  • A woman who, following a traffic incident, told another driver “there's no gearbox on a camel, you people aren’t used to it.”

In Belgium, freedom of speech is enshrined in law. The basic principle is that it is not forbidden to “shock, disturb or hurt” others. Insults or the use of denigrating terms are allowed, even when in poor taste. However, what is restricted by law is publicly “inciting” (calling for) discrimination, hatred or violence against certain individuals or groups.

4. It is a case of harassment or stalking

When do insults and hate speech become punishable offences?

Example

A man who repeatedly verbally abused a homosexual couple, based on contempt or hatred of their sexual orientation.

What if one person repeatedly harasses another person, even though he is aware (or should have been aware) of the impact on that person? This is considered harassment or stalking and it is a punishable offence. The law specifically states that it is a matter of “a serious violation of someone's personal privacy”.

Exception

When do insults and hate speech become punishable offences?

Parliamentary immunity 

Members of Parliament or other government officials cannot be prosecuted for statements they make in the exercise of their function.