When is Free Speech Free?

1 August 2015
When is Free Speech Free? - Featured image

Should we draw lines around free speech and the truth? asks Eli Bernstein

The recent shooting at the ‘Draw Mohammad’ event in Texas, like the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris a few months back, raises important questions about where the limits of free speech should be drawn, or whether they should be drawn at all.

It was George Orwell who said ‘If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.’ Pamela Geller fits squarely into that description. Geller is President of the organisations ‘American Freedom Defense Initiativeand ‘Stop the Islamization of America’, and organised the ‘Draw Mohammad’ event. Responding to claims by the mayor of Garland that she [Geller] needlessly provoked the attack, Geller said, ‘How ridiculous. I mean, that’s like saying the pretty girl was responsible for her own rape.’ She has a point.

Following the attacks in France, millions pronounced ‘Je Suis Charlie,’ in support of the French satirical publication. Yet on the day Charlie Hebdo sold out of five million copies of its latest issue, French comedian Dieudonné was arrested and charged with inciting terrorism for posting the Facebook status ‘Je me sens Charlie Coulibaly’ (I feel like Charlie Coulibaly). Coulibaly was the gunman who attacked the Kosher supermarket in Paris. Days after the march, where pencils were held up high symbolising freedom of speech, 54 people were arrested in France for offensive speech.

In fact, Charlie Hebdo, like Dieudonné, has had many run-ins with the law over its publications, having lost nine out of 48 trials for its boundary testing, according to Le Monde.

Let’s be clear: no one in their right mind can defend killing someone in retaliation to an offence. What is being debated is whether we have the right to offend.

Pope Francis entered the debate suggesting that there are limits to freedom of expression, stating that ‘if my good friend Dr Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch.’ David Cameron then criticised the Pope, insisting it is wrong to suggest that those who mock Islam and other religions could expect a punch.

It should be noted that Charlie Hebdo was an equal opportunity offender, targeting Islam, Judaism and Catholicism, among many other groups. Yet, it was its depiction of the Prophet Mohammad which prompted the reaction, echoing the global protests that swept the Arab world in 2006 following the 2005 publication of Danish cartoons featuring the same prophet.

Notably, the 2012 publication by The Onion featuring an illustration of Moses, Jesus Christ, Ganesha and Buddha, depicted ‘engaging in a lascivious sex act of considerable depravity’, drew no such reaction. The image was aptly titled ‘No One was Murdered because of this Image.’

This debate about the limits of free speech has reignited calls in Australia for repealing laws that make it unlawful to ‘offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or group’. Australian Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson has stated that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons would not be allowed under the Racial Discrimination Act, while Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane disagreed. The Australian laws are not dissimilar to the Canadian laws enforced against journalists Mark Steyn and Ezra Levant for articles offensive to Islam.

It appears the limits of free speech are being tested these days, and a clear line delineating the acceptable from the unacceptable is still a zigzag in the making.

Thank goodness greater men with less malleable principles have traversed this path before us.

In his article, ‘One thing a Muslim, a Jew, a Christian and a humanist can agree on’, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks followed the development of the idea of freedom of speech through the ages. In it, he cites Ibn Rushd (1126- 98), known as Averroës, who said one should always cite the views of one’s opponents. Silencing them is an implicit admission of the weakness of one’s case. Rabbi Judah Loewe (1525- 1609), the Maharal of Prague, cites Averroës and adds:

Do not say to your opponent: ‘Speak not, close your mouth.’ If that happens, there will take place no purification of religion . . . This is the opposite of what some people think, namely, that when you prevent someone from speaking against religion, that strengthens religion. That is not so, because curbing the words of an opponent in religious matters is nothing but the curbing and enfeebling of religion itself.

John Milton extended on this point in his 1644 pamphlet in defence of free speech, Areopagitica: ‘[W]e do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting… Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?’

John Stuart Mill reiterated the argument in On Liberty (1859):

But the peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is, that it is robbing the human race; posterity as well as the existing generation; those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.

Rabbi Sacks concludes his article, saying:

Truth … is not served by erecting around it defensive walls of legislation. We honour it by surrounding it with spacious lawns of free expression and flowerbeds of respectful debate.

As for Geller—was her conduct offensive to Muslims? Of course it was. Did she have the right to offend? Well, that brings us back to Orwell: ‘Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear. The alternative, which is to silence everyone, is to deny freedom itself.’

Modified from an article originally published in the Times of Israel— 19 January 2015.

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