Monday, November 16, 2009

Is free speech an absolute right?

Is free speech an absolute freedom that should not be countermanded? The recent appearance of the leader of the British National Party on the flagship public debate program on the BBC was defended on the grounds of free speech. Today on BBC radio there was a campaign to stop cyber bullying. Cyber bullying is the use of social networking sites like Facebook to write cruel and unpleasant things about an individual. Recently, a young woman killed herself after being the victim of cyber bullying.

Political correctness has been developed in order to limit the offence cause to others by the way that we speak. It is a lost cause. Whatever you say, someone is bound to be offended. Some local authorities have stopped saying Merry Christmas for fear of offending non-Christians. In doing so they have offended Christians. Attempts at limiting offence to Muslims have offended homosexuals. Attempts at limiting offence to homosexuals have offended Muslims. Some politically correct language has offended pedants like me who want to preserve the English language in all its glory.

I do not think free speech is an absolute. Whether you have free speech depends on the context. If you live on a mountain in Montana you can just about say what you want, principally because nobody likely to be offended is going to hear you. As with so many things, context is vital. You do not have freedom to yell, "Fire!" in a crowded concert hall.

There is no law that prevents you from saying something offensive, just the convention of good manners. As I have said before, a secular book I read on the great virtues puts politeness at the head of the list since, since society is impossible without it.

The Wire was reckoned to be the best TV program to come out of America in years. However, the dialogue was replete with offensive words. One sequence showing two detectives tracing the path of a bullet was free of dialogue apart from the dozens of 'F**ks' uttered. African Americans generally referred to each other as 'N*gg*r', but, of course, no 'Honky' would be allowed to do so. Oh! Am I allowed to use that word? When the program was broadcast in the UK, the BBC gave clear warnings of what some viewers would find offensive. There is such a thing as an 'off' switch.

We have a grading system for movies and videos. We have parental PINS to prevent our children getting access to some Internet sites. When my wife was a librarian some books were kept 'under the counter' because they were thought unsuitable for minors. In some newsagents the 'Girlie' magazines are kept on the top shelf, out of the way of the prying eyes of young children. Over the years there has been a liberalising approach to anything concerned with sex. We find it hard to believe that our forebears put skirts on table legs. Some years ago an editor was sent to prison for publishing a blasphemous libel; a homoerotic poem about Jesus. It is very unlikely that the same thing would happen now.

Yet Britain is the libel capital of the world; the offended sue here to get bigger payouts. We limit free speech by law if it seeks to defame with an untruth. The question that concerns libertarians is whether the state wishes to extend the powers it has to censor what people say. Minority groups are worried that legislation that, no doubt, with good intent wants to enshrine good manners in law, might restrict legitimate comment. The trouble with free speech legislation is that it goes too far. Homosexuals want to be protected from bullying and free to express their sexuality in public in the same way that heterosexuals do. But if it is granted to homosexuals under the heading of free speech, what is to stop pedophiles or those who like sex with animals claiming the same? I am not equating all these practices, but there is no disguising the fact that homosexuality disgusts a sizable section of the population. There are not enough prisons to punish Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells.

The liberalising tendency is winning at the moment, but it will not always be so. A backlash is developing against unfettered immigration. In 1979 the unrestrained power of the Unions left the dead unburied and rats running loose in the streets as garbage went uncollected. As a result, Mrs Thatcher's government cut off the Unions at the knees. Privatisation sapped the power of organized labor. Restrictive legislation (unrepealed by Tony Blair) enfeebled the strike threat. Right wing governments have not gone for ever.

What is the Christian perspective on free speech? It centers mainly on the freedom to preach the gospel. In many countries this is restricted, but not yet in the UK. Christians generally prefer to live in an ordered society and not to question the right of the government to govern; render unto Caesar... even if he is a tyrant. However, rendering unto God comes first and if there is a conflict they are willing to suffer the punishment the state decrees. Not that this means that they will not campaign against perceived wrongs. Men like Wilberforce campaigned against the slave trade when most of society thought slavery in Jamaica preferable to wage-slavery in Lancashire. Is free speech something that they should campaign for? Remember what was said about those who lead children astray. Something about millstones and deep sea diving, as I recall. If children are to be protected there is already an exception. Freedom of expression is a lot more complicated and blanket laws are not helpful.

Should Christians be offended? I think we have a responsibility not to seek out offence. I would never go to a Gay-Pride parade. I would not watch late-night TV programs meant to titillate. I would not buy Girlie magazines. But I might protest if I thought that bad language was commonplace in all television programs, or same-sex-snogging became a part of children's TV. Everything must be seen in context. I believe there are absolutes when it comes to right and wrong. Not everything that is sinful is unlawful. Jesus's take on murder was having hateful thoughts about another person. How do you legislate for that. There are far more adulterers than homosexuals in our churches, and far more gossips than both. We should start putting our own house in order before we insist on reform in unbelievers. While sexual sins are important, they are not more important than the many other sins listed in Scripture - including gossip, neglect of parents and mean-spiritedness.

So, no I do not think free speech is an absolute. I do believe in politeness and in only giving offence when you may legitimately intend to.


Burke said...

Wouldn't it be more correct to refer to the "right" of free speech? And ask the question within the historical context of the idea of individual rights as promulgated by John Locke?

That context was the 18th Century Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason as man's only means of cognition.

In that context, rights are not like Bible commandments. All rights flow from one primary right: the right of individuals to live and, rationally, must be construed toward that end, toward protecting the right of rational men to converse, etc. as a means of living.

Keeping this in mind, fraud, for example, would not be protected, as it is intentional and destructive and, as such, a kind of force. Falsely yelling "fire" in a crowded theatre could cause injuries as people run over one another in fear.

There is no "absolute right" to violate the rights of others with speech or in any other way, just as the right to keep and bear arms is not the right to just shoot others.

On the other hand, there is an absolute right to speak without violating the rights of others.

The administration of justice is, properly, the protection of rights. And it is a field of endeavor, just like medicine, engineering, or other fields. And like such other endeavors, it must be conducted rationally and not at the perceptual level.

Terry Hamblin said...

I don't have any problem with that. However, is there a right not to be offended by someone's speech? I don't think so. If you don't want to be offended, don't listen.

Burke said...


Imagine how many problems would be solved by dispensing with the contradictory notion of "public property."

Few would claim that anyone has the right to use the private property of another to speak from. But look at all the disputes over who can and cannot use public property for that purpose.

Suppose the airwaves were according property status. What right would some have to complain about offensive language there? If they didn't like it, they could buy the frequency (or whatever) and run it the way they wanted.

Anonymous said...

Curious if you have any comment on Michael american talk radio host banned from traveling to England because of views that are not always politically correct...his show is a mixture of rant and rave tempered with quotes from the old testament, restaurant food, and his overall theme of borders, language and culture being the things that countries must maintain to be strong...has a phd from berkley and has numerous books on nutrition in his life before being a political commentator...was surprised by his ban in england as I always assumed the britts were keen on vigorous debate...enjoy your blog lots...not just the cll information but the wide range of topics covered in an intelligent manner...romanbob

Terry Hamblin said...

The banning of Savage was a crass move my a feeble Home Secretary who has gone in the wake of a financial scandal. The point was to ban Islamic extremists, but she threw in a couple of right wingers to balance the books.