Twelve years ago, the Czech and Slovak nations overthrew one of the most repressive communist regimes in history with underground newsletters, enchanting folk music, and mass demonstrations. As a result, freedom of expression is held particularly dear in this part of the world. At the same time, it is treated as a very powerful - and sometimes dangerous - weapon.
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 in the United States have highlighted this paradox in a controversy over where the limits of expression should be drawn.
Last week, in the northern Czech town of Most, Jan Kopal, a leader of the right-wing National Social Bloc, declared to a small but enthusiastic crowd, "A state, such as the United States, which has perpetrated so much evil, supported international terrorism in the past and killed innocent civilians in, for example, Yugoslavia, deserved nothing but this kind of attack."
The Czech police were quick to react, filing charges against Kopal under a special set of laws, unique to Central Europe, that ban expression of extremist views in public. Politicians and the press almost unanimously condemned the statement, but some here fear that such laws could be used to crack down on anyone critical of the government and its allies.
Justice Minister Jaroslav Bures says Kopal's speech contributed to the "spread of terrorism" and represents a public menace. Kopal will be prosecuted for "praising a criminal act" and could be sentenced to as many as six years in prison.
This case marks the first time this set of controversial laws restricting public expression has been invoked in the Czech Republic for an offense other than inciting racial and ethnic hatred or promoting Nazism.
Most Czechs reacted to the attacks of Sept. 11 with sympathy and support for the US. The American embassy in Prague was flooded with flowers, and candles were lit in windows across the country to commemorate the victims or to plead for peace. But, as the initial shock has worn off, there are signs that not everyone agrees with the pro-American sentiment.
Late last month, a second man was charged with "propagating a movement which aims to oppress human rights", and two youths were charged with hooliganism for cursing the United States and chanting pro-Taliban slogans during a moment of silence for victims of terrorism. Flyers have also been posted in several Czech towns calling the US the "realm of evil," and police are searching for the culprits.
Kopal, who has not been taken into custody yet, maintains that he and others charged are guilty of nothing.
Last week, opinion polls showed that, while 45 percent of the population approves of US military retaliation against terrorism, two thirds of Czechs believe that the attacks were caused by the "insensitive foreign policy of the United States," indicating there may be broad support for parts of Kopal's statement.
Yet, Czech analysts are quick to point out a fine line of difference. "Just because many Czechs say the US brought these attacks on itself, does not mean that the Czech public believes they were just revenge for the activities of the United States," says Ivan Gabal, a sociologist and former anticommunist dissident in Prague.
"The difference between explanation and endorsement is of substantial significance."
In fact, dissident voices in Britain, Italy, Germany, France, and other European countries have echoed similar explanations for the terrorist attacks, stopping short of excusing the violence.
Analysts say continental Europe supports tougher laws reigning in the freedom of speech than the US, largely due to its painful history of Nazism and totalitarian communism. "History has shown us that giving free space to extreme views resulted in war and disaster," Gabal adds. "These laws are needed to keep public life within certain limits, and to show clearly where it is not allowed to go."
As security tightens across the continent, Europe's traditional anxieties about extremism are resurfacing and, with them, a tougher public stance toward dissenting opinions. Many countries are adopting provisions to make it easier for police and secret services to monitor phone calls and detain suspects. Mandatory identification cards, which most European countries already have, may be implemented in Britain.
Some, like Jiri Pehe, director of New York University in Prague, worry that strengthening laws against extremism could be detrimental in the long run. "It could become very dangerous," Pehe says. "These laws work very well as long as you have real democrats in power. But, let's say that the Communist Party were to come to power again: they could use these laws very effectively to silence the opposition."
Recently, the chairman of the parliamentary Chamber of Deputies, Vaclav Klaus, published a list of Czech left-wing intellectuals and writers he says ideologically support terrorism against the US.
"[The terrorists] are only the tip of the iceberg," Mr. Klaus says. "The left-oriented thinking of [philosopher Erazim] Kohak and others is equal with the struggle against success, wealth, property, the market, capitalism, or all that symbolizes America."
Jakub Patocka, editor-in-chief of Literarni Noviny, was put on that list for his environmentalist leanings, and he is among those concerned that Klaus may misuse the laws on extremist expression.
"There is a threat in these statements that Klaus and his party are preparing the ground for the criminalization of critical points of view," Patocka says. "It is as if Klaus wants to recreate the Committee on Un-American Activities here in the Czech Republic. This is the kind of thing that could lead to the resurgence of totalitarianism."
Klaus, who leads the Civil Democratic Party (ODS), is favored to win elections next June. "He is branding his ideological opponents, putting them in the same heap - or, to be exact, on the same iceberg - with terrorists to make sure that he wins the election. That could get very ugly," Pehe says.
Other scholars, however, support Klaus's stance, arguing that the Czech Republic must make up for embarrassing lapses in its past and become a "trustworthy ally of the west."
For example, the Czech Republic had by far the lowest support among member countries for the NATO strikes against Yugoslavia, and the Czech Republic is the producer of the plastic explosive Semtex used in numerous terrorist attacks.
Under its former communist regime, the Czech Republic supplied Semtex to Libya, according to Czech president Vaclav Havel.There are now suspicions that Czech weapons and materials have been smuggled to groups connected with Osama bin Laden as recently as last year, although probably against the wishes of the Czech government.
"Now, we must leave no doubt as to where we stand," Gabal says. "Dissent has no place in this situation."