The right to free speech isn’t the right to destroy

Although I am green at heart, I had always difficulty in understanding the activist mind. This became again clear while following the “Potato trial”. For those who are not familiar with it, this is what is was about: on May 29, 2011 the activist group Field Liberation Movement (FLM) protested against genetically modified plants. Target was a field with genetically modified potatoes from the University of Ghent in Wetteren. These potatoes were planted within the framework of the investigation of resistance of potatoes against the fungus disease Phytophtora infestans. The demonstration culminated in the activists given themselves access to the field, overpowering the police and swapping some genetically modified potatoes with their organic counterparts. Eleven activists were arrested. The activists got a fine of €550 each, had to pay a compensation of €20,000 and a conditional sentence of 3 to 6 months.

When reading the pro and contra I learned that the activists consistently claimed the demonstration was peaceful and non violent. This was the most euphemistic statement I saw in that regard (translated from Dutch):

“We have replaced genetically modified potatoes by organic potatoes. That was announced long beforehand and known by the police. It was done in clear daylight and without much resistance by the police. It was a symbolic action against a small field that in the end had primarily publicity purposes, actually the marketing of genetic manipulated organisms”, according to Anton.

How much more euphemistic could you get? They “replaced” the genetic modified potatoes from the experiment with organic potatoes. Hey, this means (part of) the experiment will be disrupted. I can image an activist consider this a minor thing, maybe even seeing it as replacing a “bad” genetically modified potato by a “better” organic one. But for the investigators it is a potential disaster. The police was indeed informed, looking at their combat armor. They obviously didn’t trust the demonstration and expected the worse.

Not much resistance by the police? Looking at the news footage it paints a different story. There was a fence around the field. So if they wanted to “replace” those potatoes with their organic counterparts, they had to forced entry to the field. That is called trespassing. Also policemen were injured during that “peaceful” demonstration, that much for “not much resistance” from the police. Some witnesses called it a battle field. I don’t know what they view as peaceful protest, but this was definitely not it.

Police on the ground - peaceful protest according to FLM. Source: vtm

Officer on the ground – peaceful protest according to FLM. Source: vtm


Not much resistance from the police – according FLM Source: hbvl

The judge convicted them symbolically for ganging, assault & injuries and destruction (translated from Dutch):

Mieke Van den Broeck, lawyer of the activists: “The imposed penalty is symbolic, but in this case criminal law is used to fight a protest movement. That is a dangerous development.”

Van Dyck: “It is a dangerous precedent that anti-GMO activists are silenced in this way. GMOs are an important political issue, but the possibilities to start a public debate are further limited with this statement.”

“That debate must take place, because GMOs are unnecessarily risky and there is an ever growing counter movement that disagrees with for example the new European seed legislation, which only makes it easier for the seeds multinationals to develop and spread GMOs.”

Beside the compensation of €20,000 (if you break it, you pay for it), the penalties were symbolic in nature. What they forgot to tell: this was not a coffee klatch, nor a peaceful demonstration. Although the demonstration was discussed beforehand with the police and announced as a peaceful protest, the activists didn’t keep to the agreement, overpowered the police and forced entry to the field, destroying (part of) the experiment by swapping some of the genetically modified potatoes by organic potatoes, showing disregard for the property of others.

What if I deeply believe that exotic plants are a no-no, would it okay for me to force entry into my neighbor’s garden and chopping down his palm tree? Is wanting to start the debate reason enough to break the law? Even activists are subjected to the laws in our society.

This is according to them the result of the verdict (translated from Dutch):

In a press release FLM describes the verdict as “a very dangerous precedent that can hit all forms of social action”. According to the movement “the Belgian court in that way fundamentally undermines the freedom of expression”. According to the FLM the struggle for sustainable agriculture is being “criminalized”.

But free speech had nothing to do with it. Everybody in Belgium can have an opinion, express it openly and can actively pursue it within the limits of the law. The problem with this action was not the demonstration itself, but the culmination of the events into trespassing, causing injuries and the disruption of the field (however minor they considered this was). If other pressure groups stay within the boundaries of the law, this verdict would not have any implication for their action.

Look at it the other way. Suppose the activists were cleared by the judge, wouldn’t that be a license for other activists that would allow them to damage the property of others who don’t agree with them? As the lawyer of the investigators stated: “the right to free speech isn’t the right to destroy”.

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