In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Restricted Speech

John Stuart Mill, in his famous treatise On Liberty, said: “Over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” Britain has a proud tradition of free speech, which grew as part of the Enlightenment. There are three main restrictions on speech in the UK: legislation against certain types of speech, violence against speakers and societal limitations.

Are we living in an age of restricted speech? (Photo thanks to IssacMao, found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/isaacmao/9753846/sizes/l/in/photostream/)

British citizens are protected by common law and by the European Convention on Human Rights, which states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression”. However, this protection is porous, allowing for numerous exemptions. The laws against defamation, originally designed to prevent duels, have now incubated their own industry, often called “libel tourism”. The British Chiropractors Association tried to sue Simon Singh for penning an article criticising chiropractors. Due to this episode, Salil Tripathi of The Wall Street Journal Europe said that British libel laws “chill free speech”. Hate speech laws restrict speech which is deemed to be insulting, threatening or abusive, and there is an on-going campaign, Reform Section 5, to overturn the illegality of ‘insulting’ speech. Jon Gaunt, a radio presenter, breached Ofcom broadcasting rules after calling Redbridge Councillor Michael Stark “a Nazi” and “an ignorant pig”, whilst discussing whether smokers can adopt children. Censorship of other forms is also prevalent, with ‘super injunctions’ stopping the British press from even reporting an injunction had been taken. The Daily Show, an American satirical programme, had coverage of the House of Commons cut from its British version, as broadcasters are not allowed to offend “the dignity of parliament”. This is despite Jon Stewart praising direct questions to the Prime Minister, calling it “awesome”, and that coverage was allowed in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria and Yemen, which are not bastions of free speech.

Theo van Gogh was shot eight times whilst he was cycling on his way to work. He died on the spot, but then the killer tried to decapitate van Gogh with a knife, stabbed him and attached a five-page note to his body with another knife. Van Gogh’s assassination followed his creation of a film with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, called Submission, which dealt with violence against women in some Islamic societies. His murder in 2004 began discussions about self-censorship with regards to radical Islam, particularly in Denmark. In September 2005, a Danish daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons, some of which depicted the Muslim prophet Mohammed. Flemming Rose, Jyllands-Posten’s culture editor, explained that: “The cartoonists treated Islam the same way they treat Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and other religions.” A significant number of Muslims consider such depictions to be blasphemous, whilst other Muslims believe the depictions of Mohammed as a terrorist were overly insulting, which led to protests, attacks and the death of over 200 people. This includes a bombing of a Dutch embassy in Pakistan. The cartoonists themselves went into hiding following death threats. Only two British publications reprinted the cartoons, one of which was gair rhydd, the University of Cardiff’s student newspaper. That issue was pulped, whilst the editor and two journalists were suspended; publication resumed after an apology. This is one example of violence effectively ending freedom of expression: silenced by self-censorship.

Lastly, holding a strange, vulgar or dissenting opinion often leads to calls for the speaker to have their speech restricted and their platform removed. As an example, Anti-Zionism is certainly a minority view in Britain. In response to Baroness Tonge’s remarks about Israel, Ed Miliband, leader of the Opposition, wrote on twitter that there was “[n]o place in politics for those who question existence of the state of Israel”. The main justification for the refusal to publish anti-Zionist views is that is a merely a veil for anti-Semitism. Professor Marcus, former staff director on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, notes a “close correlation between anti-Israeli views and anti-Semitic views based on a survey of citizens in ten European countries”.

Britain calls herself a free nation, but there are so many chains binding speech. News organisations that did not reproduce the Jyllands-Posten cartoons are neither weak nor pusillanimous, since the threat of violence was very real. The freedom to criticise other ideas is the underpinning of rational debate, and since people often become offended and insulted when their core ideas are challenged, it must include the right to insult and offend. Freedoms of speech, and consequently, freedom of the press, are the two essential freedoms. Without these, we cannot possibly hope to maintain our other liberties. The real freedom to speak without censorship must extinguish the ersatz freedom to never be offended.

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