Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Free speech

Speech is free because you don't have to listen to it. Were we forced to do so it would be intolerable. Speech can be offensive, but because we don't have to listen to it we don't have to be offended.

We do regulate what is said. If someone blackens my name by lying about me I have recourse in law to claim damages. If I lie on oath to a court, I may be sent to prison for perjury. If I steal someone's words and pass them off as my own I may be guilty of plagiarism, an offence that damages my reputation if I am caught, but also I may be liable for damages under the laws of copyright.

If I lie to the police I may be charged with perverting the course of justice or with wasting police time. If I lie to deceive others into parting with their money I may be guilty of fraud. If I incite other to kill or commit violent acts, this too is an offence.

The point is that there are limits to free speech. Society imposes those limits for its good running. Those limits cannot be fixed limits because society changes and new phenomena arise that are not covered by past limits.

I recently read a book on the great virtues. The virtue that the author chose as first, the sine qua non without which civilization cannot exist was ... politeness. I thought it a strange choice, but as I read on it became clear that without politeness we would have no discussion; only strife. No one would listen while others spoke. It would be a me-first society. The devil could take the hindermost.

Good men will not abuse their right of free speech. With every right comes a responsibilty. The responsibilty of free speech is not to use it to cause unnecessary offence. To offend deliberately is at best childish; at worst inflammatory. There is such a thing as necessarily offensive free speech: to right a wrong, to expose a fraud, to undo a lie.

How do the recent examples of "free speech" fare? David Irving's "Holocaust denial" was silly, attention seeking, and offensive to survivors of the concentration camps and the relatives of those who were killed. In Austria it was illegal, though it sounds as though the precise law against Holocaust denial was only enacted in 1992 and Irving's offence was in 1989. Making a speech retroactively illegal sems to me unjust. Austria has its own special guilt over Hitler and his cronies and I don't think it is entirely assuaged. Perhaps there is a need to have a special law for Austrians. Irving is not of course Austrian. Irving's reputation is already bust following the previous libel case. Imprisoning him only gives his vile views greater publicity.

Hamza the hooked one was prosecuted for incitement. Tapes of his sermons placed before a jury left little doubt that he had incited people to kill. People who heard him atempted or succeeded in mass murder. He clearly went beyond the limits of free speech.

The Moslem demonstrators with placards calling for the beheading of the cartoonists? I think this is a difficult one that needs to be placed in context. London marches are usually associated with inflammatory slogans. Hyperbole is rife. In the context of the London bombings; in the context of what is happening in Iraq, it was certainly unwise and a court might regard it as incitement to murder. They would have to take into account the likely effet on the observers. Even football crowds have been known to shout "Kill him!" following a perticularly bad foul. A jury might convict, though, given the current unrest. The march was certainly a foolhardy action, but I am not sure that it should be curtailed.

The cartoonists themselves? I found the cartoons poorly drawn, not funny, and for that reason I would not have published them. They were clearly offensive to Moslems; and for that reason I would not have published them. I guess they were trying to make the point that Islam is a religion of violence. That is an inaccurate charge, although for some strands of Islam it is undoubtedly true. Perhaps they were trying to make the point that no one is immune to ridicule in Western society; that Jesus can be lampooned, Jews mocked and Buddha made fun of. Why should Mohammed not be the subject of a cartoon?

Well, I am offended when Jesus is mocked, Jews are offended when Yahweh is blasphemed (they will not even say his name) and Moslems are upset when Mohammed is pictured. I feel like marching in protest at Jerry Springer the Opera. I sympathise with Moslems who protest against the cartoons. But I do not threaten to behead the actors. The Anti-Jewish placards in Moslem lands are far worse than the Danish cartoons. Moslems cannot have it both ways. In Western societies blasphemy is unlikely to be punished no matter which god is abused. I suppose we take the view that an almighty father can take silly children shaking their fists at him. If you really believe in life after death you can afford to wait for the Lord to administer justice.

Recently a street preacher in Bournemouth was arrested for reading from the Bible those passages that condemn homosexuality. That seems to be a new authoritarianism. If he were inciting violence the police might have had a point; if he were provoking a breach of the peace they might have moved him on. Merely reading aloud from the Bible is not a crime except in the old Soviet Union.

Free speech is a precious right. The government should value it even if it is not politically correct.


jack fulasofy said...

Would papers that publish the cartoons of Muhammad also publish cartoons that show the hypocrisy in Christian and Jewish cultures and risk offending their audience and advertisers? NO.
Check the taboo out at

Terry Hamblin said...

In the UK anti-religious cartoons of all sorts are commonplace. But there has been a marked reluctance to publish anti-Moslem ones.

Anonymous said...

In the United States (and the Tate museum in London), images are common that insult Christians and Jews. There are no riots, no calls for death, no beheadings.

There is certainly a double standard for Moslems. It is born out of the fear that Moslems have created for people of other religions.

We need energy independence, and then we can just fence off that part of the world and let them kill each other.