April 9, 2024 - 4:30pm

Merely a year ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that the government of a country like Poland should propose a law that would put people behind bars for hate speech against LGBT people. Yet that’s exactly what happened late last month. In an effort to make good on the new centre-left Polish government’s campaign promises, the country’s Ministry of Justice proposed draft amendments that would impose a sentence of up to three years in prison for an array of actions ranging from the use of violence to vague insults against people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or other factors.

The proposed measures have already been hailed as a victory by the LGBT community in Poland, which has for years weathered intense state-backed repression and discrimination. More broadly, the move showcases just how far the political pendulum has swung in Poland, which was once considered one of the most religious and least LGBT-friendly countries in Europe under the previous conservative government led by the Law and Justice Party (PiS).

Yet in seeking to pull Poland to the Left on LGBT rights, the newly proposed amendments more closely resemble reactionary proclamations rather than sound, well thought-out policies.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s government seems to have taken the same sledgehammer approach to this issue as it has to others since taking power late last year, and by introducing ambiguity into the Polish legal code on a matter that is so crucially in need of precise and careful reform, the Polish state risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater. By leaving crucial terms such as “insults” and “call for hatred” up to legal interpretation, the new amendments potentially allow legitimate non-hateful speech to become caught in the crossfire.

Years of inflammatory actions by state authorities like the establishment of LGBT-free zones and personal attacks against activists have made the debates around LGBT rights in Poland just as emotionally charged as those around other lightening-rod issues like abortion. Yet like many emotionally-driven reforms, the unscrupulous and inexact language present in the new law is hardly an adequate solution to Poland’s historic intolerance of LGBT rights. This is a trap that the country has fallen into before — the PiS government’s amendments to Poland’s historical memory laws similarly threatened up to three years in prison for individuals who suggested Poland was complicit in crimes committed by the Nazis during the Second World War. This ambiguity was used to target Holocaust scholars in Poland on several occasions and stifle their research. By the same token, a lack of specificity here again opens the door for politically motivated decision-making, and risks adding fuel to the fire of Poland’s increasingly divided socio-political landscape.

If Poland wants to correct course on LGBT rights, as it eagerly should, it must be careful not to repeat the mistakes of its recent past. Tusk’s government must do everything in its power to protect LGBT people while also putting up guardrails to make witch hunts of the sort that took place under PiS impossible. As it stands, the current version of the law only satisfies one of these requirements.

Michal Kranz is a freelance journalist reporting on politics and society in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the United States.