“Liberty, if it means anything at all, is the right to tell people what they don’t want to hear.”
There is one ideal that unites all those who love liberty, a concept that also unites the free world – the right to speak freely.
Freedom of speech is not the right to say anything to anyone. There are caveats. These include inciting violence (Sir Iqbal Sacranie, head of the Muslim Council of Britain is perfectly entitled to his opinion that homosexuality is ‘not acceptable’ but he would not be entitled to incite physical attacks on gays – not that he does, of course). Defamation, slander and libel are illiberal (i cannot accuse someone of being a drug dealer without firm evidence) and inciting a riot (i cannot shout fire in a crowded theatre) is also a no-no. Free speech is also subordinate to private property rights. For instance, commenters here who shout ‘you’re a f***ing idiot’ will see their comments deleted.
That said, the act of ‘causing offence’ is most definitely not an exception. As Orwell wrote over 60 years ago, it is the essence of free speech.
Every so often, our belief in free speech is tested. Geert Wilder’s latest movie, Fitna, is such a test. Let’s see how the world fared;
i) Australia – ‘In Australia, we believe in the right to freedom of expression, but we don’t believe in that right to incite racial hatred.’
Stephen Smith, Australia’s Foreign Minister
ii) The EU – ‘The European Union and its member states apply the principle of the freedom of speech which is part of our values and traditions. However, it should be exercised in a spirit of respect for religious and other beliefs and convictions.’
Slovenia, rotating head of the EU
iii) The UN – ‘There is no justification for hate speech or incitement to violence. The right of free expression is not at stake here.’
UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon
‘They should offer strong protective measures to all forms of freedom of expression, while at the same time enacting appropriate restrictions, as necessary, to protect the rights of others.’
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour
iv) Singapore – ‘Freedom of expression does not give anyone the licence to insult another’s religion or race.’
Singapore’s deputy prime minister, Wong Kan Seng
v) Egypt – ‘Western countries must adopt laws which criminalise any offence … against religious symbols, just like flagrant violations of human rights and forms of racism.’
Egypt’s Foreign Minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit
vi) Indonesia – ‘We are of the view that the film has a racist flavour and is an insult to Islam, hidden under the cover of freedom of expression.’
Foreign Ministry spokesperson
vii) Network Solutions – ‘In this situation, with the dialogue that’s happening throughout the world, we’ve made the choice to suspend the site.’
Susan Wade, spokeswoman for Network Solutions.
viii) The Dutch government – ‘It would be irresponsible to broadcast this film. That’s because Dutch companies, Dutch soldiers and Dutch residents could and will be in danger.’
Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen on why bullying works
i) Malaysia – ‘Muslims should boycott Dutch products over Fitna.’
Former Prime Minister, Dr. Mahathir, airing a legitimate response.
ii) Google – for hosting the film.
i) LiveLeak – ‘We stood for what we believe in, the ability to be heard, but in the end the price was too high’.
ii) Reason – ‘That Wilders possesses extremist views, that his interpretation of Islam is both reductive and puerile, is of no particular relevance in this case, unless one subscribes to the view that there exists an arbitrary boundary between right to free speech and freedom from offense’
iii) Peter Hoekstra – ‘These liberties have been won through centuries of debate, conflict and bloodshed. Radical jihadists want to sacrifice all we have learned by returning to a primitive and intolerant world. While modern society invites such radicals to peacefully exercise their faith, we cannot and will not sacrifice our fundamental freedoms.’
Mr. Hoekstra, ranking Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
iv) The Herald Sun’s Andrew Bolt – ‘And yet there is no denying a strand in Islam today that is violent, uncompromising and a threat to the liberal societies of the West – societies that seem more reluctant than ever to defend their most fundamental values.’
In case you think freedom of speech is a relatively recent, Anglophile phenomenon, let’s leave the last word to Socrates,
“The irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and provocative have a right to be heard.”