Monday, 12 September 2011

Freedom of Speech

I want to put freedom of speech, or freedom of expression under the magnifying glass. The reason for doing so is that I believe that the majority of people hold it dear for themselves, but seem to have difficulty in allowing it to others who may hold a different viewpoint.

This came to a head with me when I received an anonymous email taking me to task on Marxist verses Capitalist comments I made in a previous blog here. The email was none to complimentary, and if I was honest, it was offensive. It was as if I had no right to hold such views, and certainly no right to express them.

This anonymous writer (who didn't have the decency, or the courage to put his/her name to it) had obviously no concept of what free speech meant. They probably hold the view that they have the right to express their position, but I didn't have the right to express mine.

You see the same thing expressed on a daily basis in Internet newspapers and blogs sites. The level of venom displayed against a writer's contribution is frightening. Politics, religion and immigration seem to bring out the worst in people. Having another viewpoint is anathema, and instead of reasoned debate, there is vitriol. Some of the so-called Christian comments about those speaking on subjects such as abortion and homosexuality are nothing short of hateful. Freedom of speech and expression is more than a nice statement to have on the statute books, it needs to be understood, and followed in practice.

Basic human rights have long been enshrined in legal declarations. The Magna Carta of 1215 was a document for its time. It was a practical solution to a political crisis, which basically aimed to limit despotic behaviour by the king. The fact that only 3 of its original 63 clauses are still valid today does not devalue the iconic nature of the Great Charter. In fact, the most treasured clause still in force today concerns criminal justice. "No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, nor will we proceed with force against him, except by the lawful judgement of his equals or by the law of the land. To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice".

Equally, the right to free speech is recognised in many countries. The English 'Bill of Rights' 1689 granted "freedom of speech in Parliament", which was a huge step forward at the time. During the French revolution of 1789, the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen' was adopted, with Article 11 stating, "The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every citizen may, accordingly, speak, write, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by law". The 'United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights' in Article 19 says, "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers". To these you can add, Article 19 of the 'International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights'; Article 10 of the 'European Convention on Human Rights'; Article 13 of the 'American Convention on Human Rights', and Article 9 of the 'African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights'.

The Education (No 2) Act 1986, Chapter 61, Part IV, Section 43 on Freedom of speech in universities, polytechnics and colleges, says, "Every individual and body of persons in the government of any establishment to which the section applies shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment and for visiting speakers".

John Milton 1608 - 1674
I find it interesting to note how many of these Charters guaranteeing freedom of speech are based on the work of the 17th Century John Milton.

Milton is perhaps best known as a poet, particularly through his magnificent religious epic, 'Paradise Lost'. What is less known is the political side of his life. He was a civil servant to Oliver Cromwell during the Commonwealth Period from 1649 (from near the end of the English Civil War), until the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.

In Andrew Puddephatt's 2005 book, "Freedom of Expression. The essentials of Human Rights", he shows that Milton's arguments have been taken up by others, and reveals that freedom of speech is a multi-faceted right, that includes three distinct aspects.
  1. The right to seek information and ideas
  2. The right to receive information and ideas
  3. The right to impart information and ideas
So the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas is enshrined in human rights legislation. Let that be clearly noted by those one-sided proponents of free speech. It's not just for you, it's for everyone.

However, it needs to be noticed that free speech is not without its limitations; free speech does not guarantee a free for all. There are limitations set in every country that promotes free speech, and in the UK, freedom of expression is subject to common law. Wikipedia lists the following where free speech does not apply in the UK. "Incitement, incitement to racial hatred, incitement to religious hatred, incitement to terrorism, including encouragement of terrorism and dissemination of terrorist publications, glorifying terrorism, collection or possession of information likely to be of use to a terrorist, threatening, abusive or insulting speech or behaviour, treason, including imagining the death of the monarch, sedition, obscenity, indecency including corruption of public morals and outraging public decency, defamation". The list goes on, which you can follow by clicking on the link above.

While exceptions to free speech, such as 'corruption of public moral' and 'outraging public decency' are open to interpretations, I don't have too many problems with these free speech limitations. I don't wish to insult or offend anyone, and I will listen to anyone's point of view, however much I may disagree with it. In return, I want the freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas for myself, without having to run a gauntlet of hate and vitriol - that's not too much to ask for is it?

Two years ago, Philip Johnston in the Daily Telegraph wrote, "Whatever happened to free speech? Britain was once renowned around the world for defending people's rights to speak out. Not any more". What brought him to say this?  It was two events that were twenty years apart. The day before he wrote the article, the Labour Government had refused permission for the Dutch MP Geert Wilders (well known for his criticism of Islam) to enter the country,  saying that he would be "a threat to one of the fundamental interests of society". The ban was in fact overturned on appeal, and he was allowed in about ten months later. However, Johnston didn't know that at the time, and saw the Government as caving in to the threats of public unrest from one section of the community.

He contrasted this with the treatment of Salman Rushdie in 2007, when the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the death of Rushdie for insulting the Prophet Mohammed in his book The Satanic Verses. The Government supported the right of Rushdie's free speech, and broke off diplomatic relations with Iran. Rushdie was supported in free speech, but Wilders was not. This was why Johnston saw the latter's treatment as "a pusillanimous flight into cowering capitulation", and brought him to ask, "Whatever happened to free speech?".

It's irrelevant whether you agree with the views of Rushdie or Wilders, as it is irrelevant whether you agree  with my views on religion or politics, or anything else come to that. What is relevant is that we are free to express our views within the law of the land. Otherwise, as George Washington said, "If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter". Let me leave you with a few other quotes.

"Free speech is the whole thing, the whole ball game. Free speech is life itself" - Salman Rushdie

"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties" - John Milton

"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it" - Voltaire

1 comment:

  1. John, spot on. I too have suffered at the hands (or often obscene vitriol) of newspaper blog sites. I always notice that those who are capable of and most likely to use venom and offensive words to comment are also, sadly,the same people who never actually develop an argument. On one or two occasions I have responded with a couple of my favourite Einstein quotes: "Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds" and "Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment.Most people are incapable of forming such opinions". Whenever I have used these, further venom has descended upon me - but it did make me feel better!