Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Analysis of political issues across the world

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Nathan » 25 May 2013, 21:39

This isn't something I've had the time to think about much, and my own views aren't particularly clear, but I'd like to get your opinions in any case.

To provide one of many similar examples, on 11 September 2011 a group of around 100 Muslims assembled outside the American embassy in London, where a ceremony was taking place to commemorate the attacks 10 years earlier to burn the American flag, make speeches claiming the US were terrorists and would always face suffering and humiliation unless it withdrew from Muslim lands. Despite the fact it was obviously intended to be insulting, disrespectful, threatening and a pure nuisance, nobody was arrested for it, although were arrests later on following scuffles with counter-demonstrators.

Yesterday, an 85-year-old lady was arrested and charged for allegedly hurling abuse (it is not clear what was actually supposedly said, though this site claims the abuse was "Go back to your own country!") at Muslims outside a mosque in Kent, coming two days after Islamic terrorists butchered a British soldier to death on the streets of his capital city.

Eleven more people have been arrested in Britain since the attack for 'racist or anti-religious' comments on social media alone.

Even if we try to remove our own personal bias from consideration and be completely neutral, how to deal with those two cases? Do we have a right not to be insulted or an absolute right to free speech and expression?
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Re: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Michael » 26 May 2013, 01:32

Even if we try to remove our own personal bias from consideration and be completely neutral, how to deal with those two cases? Do we have a right not to be insulted or an absolute right to free speech and expression?

Nathan, do you mean a right in the sense of one codified in a country's legal code and tradition of jurisprudence, or right in a transcendental sense like those of which human rights activists speak, ones by which we would judge laws?
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Re: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Elliott » 26 May 2013, 06:48

I would suggest (though I'm not certain about this) that it would be wise to approach this as two different, slightly contradictory, things.

  • freedom of speech/expression is of absolutely paramount importance. We should all be free to say whatever we like (while guided, hopefully, by a sense of decency and responsibility)
  • but on the other hand, a society should not tolerate the rantings of a group who are genetically and intellectually foreign to them and clearly desirous of takeover of the society. We owe these people nothing, and we endanger ourselves (mortally) by allowing them free rein.

Freedom has to be curtailed when its exercise would endanger the society as a whole. Allowing Muslims to chant vile slogans about beheading and subjugating First Worlders is an assault on civilisation and on decency, and it has only one effect: it foments hatred in the Muslims and hatred for them.

Western societies were designed for First Worlders. We have nothing to learn from the Third World. We spent centuries building this civilisation so that it would be better than the Third World, and we succeeded. We do not owe Third Worlders any rights to criticise our societies. It is dishonest and condescending to claim that they have anything to teach us.

Basically free speech is fine in a society of labradors. But we've let a wolf into the pen. Give it freedom, and it will destroy everything.
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Re: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Caleb » 26 May 2013, 07:36

I think they should have freedom to say whatever they want and make complete muppets of themselves, so long as everyone else has the right to take the proverbial out of everything they say, as well as their religious or cultural beliefs in general. It's the second part that's lacking, of course. Likewise, they should be allowed to burn any flag they like, but everyone else should be allowed to burn the Koran if they like.
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Re: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Grant » 26 May 2013, 07:50

I've always found the concept of being free to say whatever one likes to be rather strange in a society that has rules for other social interaction designed to protect individuals and promote a fair and just community. Why is it right to have workplace laws to protect the safety of workers but allow the collective safety of society to be at the mercy of crazed ramblings.
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Re: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Jonathan » 26 May 2013, 08:25

Elliott wrote:
  • freedom of speech/expression is of absolutely paramount importance...
  • but on the other hand, a society should not tolerate the rantings of a group... clearly desirous of takeover of the society...

Freedom has to be curtailed when its exercise would endanger the society as a whole.

I think the key question is: Who should take action?

The first option is that the state should take action, by suppressing the freedom of speech and association of those it judges to be the enemies of society. This option fills me with dread; my first instinct is that these legal tools of oppression are much more likely to be used against the politically incorrect than against the Islamists; and even in the best case - if used solely against Islamists, vanquishing them without a single protest or casualty - these same tools will then be used against internal political dissent, resulting in a dictatorship.

The other option is that society should take action, rather than the state - individual citizens organizing themselves into groups, taking to the streets in protest, organizing marches, PR campaigns, political parties. This is the path the EDL (for all its faults) is taking. It means struggling (through legal means!) not only against Islamists, but also against the media and the state. It means appealing to Freedom of Speech, rather than trying to selectively suppress it.

The second path is the harder one, but a better future awaits us if we can follow it. If you criminalize Jihadi speech, the enemy will be much less obvious. Ordinary citizens will doubt whether the danger is real, or whether it's being trumped up by fevered right-wing maniacs. You will find yourself prosecuting more and more benign utterances using more and more subtle arguments, until you lose the support of the people.

I say, the free speech of the Jihadist is best countered with the free speech of a Patriot.
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Re: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Nathan » 27 May 2013, 23:47

This isn't something I interpret in any deep, philosophical sense but by reducing it to a personal level: if you told me I was, say, stupid, or ugly, or said I was no good at my job, I might not appreciate it but at least I would accept, and feel I had to accept your right to say that. If you got in my face and screamed abuse at me, and then burned an effigy of my mother and shouted 'Rot in hell!', then no, you would have well and truly crossed the line, and I wouldn't feel obliged to accept that at all. How does this reasoning not transfer to a bigger scale?

I'd particularly appreciate input from Americans on this issue, who have spent their lives in a society with the First Amendment. I imagine a society with true freedom of speech and expression would be pure anarchy, as it would feel it had no right to object to not only (genuine!) racist or sexist hate speech, but also swearing in public, public nudity, etc. (Interestingly, the country which has First Amendment principles deeply embedded in its culture actually has stricter rules on swearing on television and on public nudity than many European countries, which don't.)

As with the Human Rights Act, if there were no restrictions at all the cry would be "I'm allowed to say and do what I want, and if you don't like it, that's your problem. My right to do what I want outweighs your right not to be offended".

From my distant vantage point I have always interpreted some of the "Only in America" oddities and relatively shrill political discourse as a consequence of the First Amendment - I consider myself to have the freedom to say and do what I want more so than in other nations, therefore let's make the most of it, regardless of how ill-informed or outlandish those things might be. As far as I am concerned, another reason in favour of a certain level of restrictions.

As with [url]= views on democracy[/url], free speech is a very workable idea in homogenous, stable societies without too much discord and with a populace which has a level of respect towards each other. To go back to the restrictions on speech considered racist, what need is there for restrictions like that in a 99% homogenous society where almost nobody is around to take offence, and so society has no need to fear the results of rising tensions?

The problems with the makeup of the societies we have now is that more is to be lost in formenting potential discord by allowing people to burn the national flag and insult returning soldiers at homecoming parades than is to be lost in terms of a loss of innocence and liberal self-righteousness in banning them. It seems all well and good to allow a Muslim the right to burn a Bible on the grounds that should he wish, a Christian may burn the Koran, but that relies on both sides to play ball and have the same level of respect for each other, and that they would both react to these slights in the same way, only we know too well that this is not the case.

For as long as such elements are in our midst, I would argue that providing the restrictions can be evenly applied - another question entirely, I know - there has to be a certain level of restrictions as the path of least resistance that allows us to co-exist.
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Re: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Caleb » 28 May 2013, 00:17

Nathan: I think Jonathan makes an excellent point in his first paragraph. That is the whole reason for freedom of speech. It's all very well if your way of thinking is the way of the majority, but what if it isn't? The First Amendment exists to defend all others. That's why it was made the First Amendment, not the Eighth. Probably because the Founding Fathers realised that the average person would struggle to remember anything beyond the Second. In fact, I'm pretty certain that's why they did it that way as I think 95% of U.S. citizens wouldn't even know what the Third Amendment was. (I do, however.)

As to the extreme nature of American public discourse, I don't think it even necessarily makes their society any more extreme. I think there may be other factors involved (and not just race) in their issues there. They have their own complications to deal with, but at least when there's a terrorist attack, people condemning the attackers aren't hauled out of their beds for posting on Facebook, as has happened in the U.K. Of course, that's not to say that the U.S. always gets everything right, but I'd rather a free-for-all than the thought police.
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Re: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Paul » 28 May 2013, 12:01

I've just read a report (on Huffington Post) that asks whether Anjem Choudary should be banned from appearing on TV. The Home Secretary, Mrs May, has hinted at this possibility. In a poll taken, over 60% say he should be so banned. It's remarkable then how many people still trust the government and would so easily give them their approval to ban certain things.

It's a bad idea I think.

1. The man is such a blatant annoyance (putting it mildly) that keeping all options available to him enables everyone to see and remember just what is going on. TV is the best format for that, for most people. As Pat Condell once said - 'Thank God for Andy Choudary'.

I'm not saying he should be on TV, and certainly not often if so, but banning someone because he is offensive, isn't necessarily the right way to go. The question of whether or not he should be given airtime is best left to the TV stations themselves. When, as is the case with the BBC, they are falling over themselves to give him a platform ......... well, they are showcasing their own naked sympathies too.

2. More importantly, it won't stop there. A mandate to ban Choudary will be almost as swiftly used (or more so - can you trust them?) to ban any EDL spokesperson, or anybody else with whom the authorities don't agree.

I know it's different (but only to us) but the left will choose to see no such difference and gleefully demand that all kinds of other people are prohibited from appearing. They adore authority remember. From there it could well extend into any video clip and thence anything posted or filmed anywhere else. The government are already hinting at using (and that's what it will be) the Woolwich tragedy to reconsider censoring the internet. It won't be the correct people who are censored though - it will be forums like this and all kinds of other blogs too.

I can believe that the internet will be almost impossible to censor fully, but they will certainly be able to make life very difficult for UK bloggers and forum members. I don't trust them, not at all.

This is how we get conspiracists saying the Woolwich incident was a false flag and was staged just to steam-roller through more oppressive laws against freedom. Whilst the former is typically ridiculous, the latter is only too real, as yet more arrests over statements on Twitter and FB have proved - yet again.

Reference was made to the banning (from TV) of Sinn Fein in a previous era. We then had the ridiculuous situation nonetheless, where Gerry Adams (for eg) was voiced-over by an actor whilst his face was darkened into shadow, but his message still broadcast. I don't think anyone was either fooled or impressed by that strategy.

It's a difficult matter. Obviously we should have laws of libel and slander and then you have the situation of someone shouting 'Fire!' in a darkened and crowded cinema - a malicious statement designed to cause panic and maybe hurt, but being eager to ban everything that some people may find 'merely' offensive is a dark road to take.

Freedom of speech is one of the basic historical rights of the British, along with many others, once (and still?) the envy of much of the world. It would be ill to chip away at it every time we were offended - or even outraged.
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Re: Freedom of speech and freedom of expression

Postby Gavin » 28 May 2013, 12:42

It is a tricky one, but there is not currently complete freedom of speech in our society (by which I mean freedom from that society imposing any official consequences).

I wouldn't ban people saying things that might "hurt" people, although that can be an unpleasant thing to do. But I think a society has to put up walls and protect its core values, and as I say, we already do in law.

I wouldn't let people like Choudary spout their hatred since it is designed to overthrow the very society which is his host. I will try to draw an analogy. Would you let someone come into your house and use it as a broadcasting base to tell everyone that they intend to take your house from you, and urge everyone to join them in their aim? This seems to me just crazy - a step too far. It is quite possible to so tolerant that one "accommodates" oneself into oblivion.

It's illegal to make death threats at the moment. Do people think this law should be revoked? He's just one such example (again) from the EDL leader's Twitter:

Screen Shot 2013-05-28 at 13.32.15.png

I think I would probably arrest that person. So: no freedom of speech. It's a matter of where the line is drawn. Personally, I would draw it earlier against those who wish to massively change the culture and character of the UK and wish to impose Islamic law. I would just say that isn't acceptable.

I may be wrong but that's my view right now. Ultimately I think this is a philosophy discussion, though, and force and public feeling will win out.
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