Free Speech Quagmire


The supposed hallowed hallmark of free societies, free speech, has been sorely tested these past few weeks. First there were the Mohammed cartoons - originally published in a Danish newspaper - which have infuriated Islam and sparked world-wide riots and demonstrations. Then there was the guilty verdict handed down to David Irving, the British historian who is internationally vilified for his revisionist views on the Holocaust. And looked at together they present a confused and contradictory message. For the most part, Europe has defended the publication of the cartoons and upheld the concept of free speech. And others, the world over, have rallied to the call, even republishing the cartoons as a matter of "principle." However, Europe is far more reluctant to grant David Irving a similar right. He has been sentenced to three years in jail for a speech and interview he gave in Austria in 1989. Under Austria's strict "Holocaust Denial" laws, Irving's statement that, "there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz", has cost him his freedom. This raises important questions about what free speech actually is, and if it should ever be limited. Defenders of free speech come in all shapes and sizes, and in fact, it's hard to find anyone who is outright against it--with qualifications, of course! Take the cartoon case. Here is a situation where a revered religious figure is made fun of or denigrated in some way. Revered, that is, by those of the Islamic faith. This type of thing is not new - as any stand-up comedian will tell you. Poking fun at, and ridiculing people is their stock in trade. To put it into our own cultural context, consider some tasteless cartoons about Jesus, and take your own response "temperature." Of course, how you would feel about such cartoons would depend on what you believed about Jesus. If you were a Christian, you'd probably be offended. And if you weren't, you probably wouldn't care. However, one's response to such an event is a different issue - and to be evaluated accordingly. Just because Muslims were offended by the cartoons (something which I'm sure religious people can understand) doesn't mean they can go out and start burning buildings and generally causing havoc. In fact, such a response only serves to undermine their own moral status, as people whose sensibilities need to be considered at all. So we have the "considerate" compromiser, who says he defends free speech, but that it needs to be considered in the context of the situation, that sometimes good taste or plain politeness should deter one from exercising free speech. I call this the voluntary-code-of-conduct approach, which is fine, as in this case any curtailment of free speech is self-imposed, not imposed by others. Now, certainly, a private individual - say, at a party - may deem it not in good taste to express his personal opinion about the host, to all those present. This would undermine the unwritten rules of social etiquette and good behaviour. However, in the case of a newspaper cartoonist, stand-up comic, or even an historian, a different set of parameters come into play. Take David Irving's case. He has been found guilty of uttering words which other people disagree with - and to which they take offence. His statement that people weren't gassed at Auschwitz or that less than six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis, raises the ire of many of those who lived through the war, and in particular Jews themselves. However, if you transpose his case to another situation, it becomes absurd. David Irving is often branded a "Holocaust Denier," someone who denies the official Holocaust story. But let's imagine he was a "God Denier" - someone who denies the existence of God. No doubt millions would be offended by his assertion - especially if he were to give public speeches on the subject and be widely published. However, do you really think he would be put in jail for such an utterance? Maybe in the Dark Ages - but not today, not in our post-religious world. And yet, the situations are very similar. In both cases he would be denying something that is hallowed ground to millions of people. He would be offending them by his assertion. So, deny the Holocaust - go to jail. Deny the existence of God - go free. Denying the "official story" is often dangerous, of course. Consider Galileo, whose assertion that the earth moved around the sun got him brought before the Church authorities. Here was a man who, via the scientific method, had come to the conclusion that the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around. However, this truth was unacceptable to the established religious order. They weren't interested in facts, but only in the official story, which they saw as fundamental to their faith - and their power. If we were to bring his particular story into the present age, we might compare it with someone who questions the Theory of Evolution - or its obverse, the Intelligent Design Theory. Can you imagine anyone being jailed for saying that evolution did not happen? Of course not. But I guess no one would be offended by that, as it is not a religious dogma! The importance of free speech, in such situations, is that it is a necessary part of free enquiry. Science could not advance if all knowledge was "given" and incapable of being questioned. A scientist MUST have free speech or all scientific enquiry would come to a grinding halt. History is no different. If we want to understand ourselves, then a rigourous appraisal of historical events is essential. So are we now to jail those who don't agree with official history? The issue is not whether a "David Irving" is right or wrong, but whether he has the right to question the historical record. The issue of free speech covers a lot more ground than just cartoons and historical research, of course. It covers everything. Take censorship. Censorship is the opposite of free speech. In most western countries, this is limited to restricting what you and I can see on TV, watch at the movies - and perhaps even buy at the bookstore. Most people support such restrictions on free speech - on the grounds that people need protecting from themselves. But few people consider the implications of censorship - and its potential to spread like a cancer throughout society. Censorship is undertaken by government-appointed bodies - usually made up of selected individuals (presumably chosen for their impeccable morals and good character!). It's their job to view all suspect films, books an so on, and to pass judgment as to whether they are suitable for general consumption. Now I don't have a problem with a "ratings board" - some sort of organisation that posts ratings on such things. This can be a useful service to those who want to avoid certain films or books. So if they say a particular film is recommended for those 18 years old or over, or that it has graphic violence and sex in it, or too many "F" words, then it can be useful information. However, a censor's job is different. It is to decide (like God) what can and cannot be consumed by the public. Interestingly enough, most people never ask the obvious question, "Who decided this person is qualified to watch films that I cannot watch?" We in the West feel smug in our "free speech zone," when we look at a place like China where they are always censoring the news. We cry "foul" and feel superior. But the reality is that censorship is censorship. Whether it's some democratically elected body deciding what you can and cannot see at the movies, or some unelected body deciding what you can or cannot read in the newspapers - it's all a violation of free speech. It's a violation of someone's right to free expression - and the concurrent right of those who choose to listen to or view such expression. The fact is that ALL states enforce censorship. And even more so during times of war - as now, with the "war on terror." War, it appears, grants the state extraordinary powers to suppress the truth, and worse, to issue false propaganda. So much for free speech. So, we in the West are not "squeaky clean" when it comes to the issue of free speech - which explains why everybody is so confused about what it is, and whether it's worth defending. The "currency" of free speech has also been devalued over recent years, with the gradual erosion of rights in this regard. Now we find that free speech is fine - as long as you don't use it to offend anyone, like uttering stereotypical opinions about gays, lesbians, Hispanics, feminists, right or left-wingers, the unemployed, solo mothers, fat people, macho males, Asians, and other assorted targets. Then, of course, there's the Orwellian- sounding war on "hate speech" - whatever that is. So we're left with a sort of emasculated free speech - free speech in name only. Free speech for wimps. Which brings me to the point of this essay: Do you have the right to utter, draw, write, record or otherwise make public your own personal opinions? And do you have the right to have access to such opinions of others? And my answer is yes. For if this right is curtailed, then it is just the beginning of a slippery slope to full censorship. Once you accept the principle of "limited" free speech, then it's only a matter of time before the limits become more and more onerous, until one day you wake up and the limits are total. Sure, with free speech you end up with more peeved, offended and disgruntled people. But that is the price we must be prepared to pay in order to have a free society. It's like the friction between freedom and security. If you want total security, then you are asking for total government (in the misguided belief that the state can actually offer such security). If you want freedom, then you are placing a higher value on freedom than security and are prepared to take responsibility for the security side of the issue. It's the same with freedom of speech. If you value it, then you won't want to place limits on it. On the other hand, if you prefer a "safe" social environment, with no insults, no offensive utterances, and no questioning of the official line - then total censorship, i.e. total government, is the obvious destination. And if you don't like that possibility, then free speech must be more than just empty words. It must be a matter of principle.

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David MacGregor runs an information service and publishes a newsletter for freedom seekers and aspiring sovereign individuals at