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Watch your tongue: Prejudiced comments illegal in Brazil.

Brazilian lawmakers and law enforcement have drawn the line on free speech when it comes to racial, religious, or ethnic agitation – even though it is a constitutional right.

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Petruso’s case made national headlines as she went to trial, where she did not deny having sent the tweets. She defended herself in court by saying she was not prejudiced and comparing her remarks to a heated outburst during a soccer game: “My candidate was José Serra [Rousseff’s opponent], it was something in the moment, like in a soccer game between two teams when a player yells: ‘I’m going to kill [São Paulo club] Corinthians!”

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‘Disqualifies’ Brazilian democracy?

Daniel Silva, a linguistics professor at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, says that Brazilians largely do not protest or question the laws against prejudice and that, rather than claiming free speech, defendants typically try to reconstruct their comments as a joke or say they were misunderstood.

But Ricardo Noblat, a popular political columnist who describes himself as a member of the left, warns about the zeal to apply a law that restricts free speech in the name of human dignity but in practice is used to target so-called conservative standpoints.

In a column headlined “The fascism of the well intentioned,” Mr. Noblat defended ultra-conservative Congressman Jair Bolsonaro, who routinely speaks out on culture war issues such as abortion rights and a proposed “gay kit” that would be distributed in public schools to counter homophobic attitudes. Noblat noted that former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva famously said that the global financial crisis had been caused by “blonde people with blue eyes” without an outcry of racism over his comments.

“I think this [curbing of free speech] disqualifies the Brazilian democracy,” Noblat says. He adds that after a two-decade military dictatorship, which ended in 1985, Brazil does not have a deeply rooted culture of Democracy. Freedom of speech, Noblat says, “only worries a small part of society.”

“The justice system itself takes this position, that freedom of expression is less important than certain other things, like the repression and punishment of opinions that injure certain values,” he says.  
While US courts and officials routinely uphold Americans’ rights to offensive speech, as in the case of the Koran-burning pastor Terry Jones, linguistics professor Silva notes that each society finds its own limits on free speech. He gives the example of the US military investigating a WikiLeaks sympathizer for the crime of “communication with the enemy.”

“The fact that here in Brazil there is this law, it doesn’t mean that people will be any less racist,” says Mr. Silva. “They will at least know that they will be accountable for what they say. In these very fragile racial relations, at least people know that they have rights [to dignity]”


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