Monday, 26 November 2007

Hate To Say It

Should offence caused and potential threat to public order be sufficient to deny people with repulsive views their right to free speech, provided they do not break the law?

It is at least safe to say that tonight's Free Speech Forum at the Oxford Union debating society has caused quite a bit of controversy. From the multiple discussions on the subject at Comment is Free1,2 and elsewhere3,4, to the UAF5 protesters currently gathering outside the venue [as I write, 30 of them have now pushed their way into the venue and are staging a sit-down protest that has postponed the 'debate'], the issue of freedom of speech has once again shown its ability to polarise and confound.

We already do not have absolute freedom of speech in this country. Restrictions on speech include slander, incitement to violence, and now the encouragement of terrorism6. There is not the expectation that Nick Griffin (BNP leader) and David Irving (history author infamous for Holocaust denial*) will contravene these laws this evening.

But do the above laws go far enough? Unite Against Fascism, organisers of tonight's demonstration7 against the invitation of the two, cite the "violence and intimidation"5 that the likes of Griffin and Irving bring in their wake. OUSU, Oxford University's student union, also voted to oppose the invitation.

The views of Griffin and Irving are transparently hateful, bigoted and ignorant, and there is little question that they have the potential to inflame bigotry and hate in others. The question is, should this be enough for them to be restrained from exercising their right to free speech, with the proviso that they obey British law as it currently stands, whether that be by 'no platform' policies or sit-down protesters?

That is by no means an easy question to answer. One counter-argument to UAF's that is to my mind clearly worthy of consideration was well put by commenter Scott Free at Harry's Place4 in response to Peter Tatchell's pro-'no platform' article, in which he paraphrases part of Tatchell's argument as follows:

"Let’s go back in history. It is possible that if there had been no free speech for [Karl Marx] and the [Communist] Party in Germany during the early 1920s – if their meetings and marches had been stopped – they may not have grown in strength and influence. Denying them an opportunity to propagandise, gain respectability and enter the political mainstream might have thwarted their rise to power. This may have prevented the [Communists] from assuming the government of [Russia]. Without [Lenin] in power, the [Ukranian Genocide] and World War Two may not have happened. Tens of millions of lives may have been saved if the free speech of [Communists] had been suppressed early on.

This is, of course, historical speculation. We don’t know for sure. But it is plausible that “no platform” for [Communists] in the 1920s could have prevented the horrors the [Communists] later perpetrated. On these grounds, I would argue that it would have been justified to deny the [Communist] Party freedom of speech."

Still sound like a good idea?- Scott Free9

Some might say in response to this "Er, yes!". Just as many might be mortally offended by the suggestion of denying advocates of far-left ideologies freedom of speech on this basis.

Similar arguments could be made regarding some of the more extreme religious ideologies, and perhaps extreme anti-religious ideologies too. Some environmentalists might argue that scepticism regarding climate change (tellingly, referred to as 'denialism') is a harmful idea that should be suppressed. Less extreme (but still hateful) forms of Nick Griffin's racist anti-immigration ideology are propagated by pundits in mainstream newspapers. Should they too be censored? Basically, once you begin to restrict the propagation of ideas based on a perception or supposition of harm or offence caused, outside of law, where does it end?

Do we really want to go down that road? Within the law, the principles of liberty and freedom of expression should be upheld.

9. (Comments, 26/11/07, 8:40)

* Irving sued US historian Deborah Lipstadt for libel in the UK for calling him a Holocaust denier in her book on the subject. The judge ruled against Irving and found Lipstadt's claims against him to be "substantially true"

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