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The Limits of Free Speech?


Its no surprise that the folks over at dossingtimes and best of both worlds were on this faster than a hare in clonmel, its one of the bigger principle challengers around.

However, I do want to broaden it out a bit more, if I may be so bold.

The recent trouble arising out of Denmark and now many of the countries of mainland Europe, is something to provoke us all into thought. However the kidnapping of a German in the West Bank this afternoon (apparantly on the back of the cartoons) and the acquital of BNP leader Nick Griffin certainly pose some serious challenges to the principle of freedom of speech.

I myself have come nowhere near conclusion on the issue, so dont expect a definitive answer here.

Nick Griffin and a fellow party member were acquited earlier today of charges relating to racial haterd. You will all remember that this self same law was the focus of a bill which saw Tony Blair defeated twice in the commons on Tuesday last. Griffin was up on charges realting to an undercover BBC documentary which caught him on camera making various incendiary statements about Islam and foreigners in general. (Islam was a "wicked vicious faith".)

As he stood outside Leeds Crown Court, Mr Griffin happily thanked the courts for delivering a victory for "freedom". Needless to say, there were many unhappy faces. Labour MP Shahid Malik, member for Dewsbury which has returned the largest BNP vote thus far, was on Channel 4 News suggesting that nowhere is freedom of speech asolute and the defeat in the commons on Tuesday means that even under the new legislation Griffin would probably not be found guilty.

The obvious case, in his eyes, is that the state is required to step in to regulate the likes of Griffin and others on the fringes of our politics who exist on stirring up racial sentiments. That seems like a fair position, but it is one we shall return to later on.

The other case is much more familiar to us, those cartoons. Originally printed in a Danish newspaper, the cartoons have been published in solidarity in France, Germany (the right to blaspheme is central to democracy), Spain, Italy and further along. It has brought about serious reprecussions in the middle east, not least for Danish business. Diary group Arla is to lay off 140 staff due to losses incurred through the boycott.

The cartoons depict Allah (already flouting Islamic belief) in a variety of poses (turban as bomb, with lots of virgins and so forth). Its understandably provocative but more so when one considers that Islam has a proscription on artistic depictions of the prophet.

There is an interesting point made in the reuters article:

The dispute, which has parallels to the 1989 Iranian death sentence on writer Salman Rushdie, arises from the fact that Muslims still consider blasphemy -- or insulting the sacred -- as a crime while Westerners no longer take it seriously.

Jesus Christ has been mocked so often in Western media and art that it hardly causes outrage any more and courts usually reject legal suits against the satire. Because of the horror of the Holocaust, Western media are much more cautious about Jews.

The issue in this particular case does indeed revolve around the central role of blasphemy. Is it a crime or is it simply in contravention of a singular cultural norm and thus not criminal?

We have then two very different cases before us, yet the principle which governs the defence of both actions is the same, Griffin's right to freedom of expression makes him immune from race hate laws (indeed the principle makes him immune from any attempt to legislate), while freedom of expression allows Papers to print challenging depictions of a religious figure.

The first question that I think arises is this, is freedom of expression absolute?

It may seem like an oxymoron but it was the position forwarded by Malik on the news tonight. Is freedom of expression an absolute and incontrovertible freedom which entitles all those who bear it (members of most democracies) the right to speak out as the deem fit?
Or is freedom of expression a more limited freedom, in that it is free up to the point where it interferes with the freedom/liberty of another?

The answer to this question is likely to hold the key to the response to this issue as a whole. The tradeoff presented here, and at its most extreme, is between legislating against the right to denigrate religious figures or against the rights of people to preach racism and prejudice and enabling the licence of all to express themselves as they see fit.

The response for legislation is the most intuitive. Surely those at the receiving end of the offence should be entitled to some form of protection.

Yet the counter argument comes just as quickly, is it not better to allow these cases to be aired freely and gunned down with rational argument. Is it not better to have the country see Griffin as the loon that he is, or to allow Europe and the Middle East to have a debate over the status of religious figures? Would it not be worse to force these sentiments to be swallowed up and expressed in more dangerous and less detectable forms (violence, threats etc).

And at that the argument only just begins. I am aware that I have taken two issues which are in most respects completely different, what was done in Denmark was not "hate-crime" and what Griffin was doing was certainly not opening up a reasonable dialogue with Britains Muslim community and asylum seekers.

Yet the hold all defence of freedom of expression is present in both cases. Is such a thing justifiable, should "hate-crimes" have recourse to these ideals of freedom of expression? I am thinking in my heart of hearts that they should not. Hate is an irrational emotion which is not entirely subject to the controls of reason and thus open for rational debate. Yet if it never gets out there how is it to be confronted.

Ultimately, I feel that I must divorce the two and treat the issue of freedom of expression in a different manner in each scenario. If a general law regarding freedom of expression cannot be found then principles which guide responses to each particular event are the next best thing. However moving to this position implicitly accepts that there are times and places where it is justified and correct to infringe on the 'sacrosanct' freedom of expression.

Im sure that the number of libertarians out there are squirming in their seats at this thought, well good news, I havent decided yet, but I will.

The challenge to those who would continue to allow the two issues to be grouped together under the one defence is to present a coherent justification for all cases of expression. To admit that there may be no case which contravenes such a right.

To say that such a challenge is too much, is to say that there may be cases in which there is need to legislate. (Im sure most of you at this stage are clapping saying well done to the slow man from Kerry. Perhaps, but no position in this debate may be without justification.) To admit of exceptions is to be required to set the criteria for such exceptions, i.e. laying out the principles for particularity.

At this point we are back to the Commons on Tuesday night and the disagreements over passing a law on "religious hatred". Where is the line, even if its only a dotted one, where can it be.

For right now, that is where I will leave it. I am intrigued however, by the potential response of a blogosphere full of learned folk and different principles.

Is freedom of expression absolute? Discuss.

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