If not free speech then what?

Free speech is absolutely vital for the sort of society in which I wish to live. I want a society where ideas can be freely exchanged, where they are judged on their merits alone and not on who supports or derides them. If we do not have freedom of speech then there can not even be debate on any other issue. This is something I’ve tried to defend throughout the history of this blog, whether it was calling out France for outlawing opinions, the UK for arresting people for harmlessly expressing their views or just arguing against offence being something we should be protected from. Now I need to do it again.

I recognise limits to freedom of speech but they are minimal; when the speech is knowingly false or misleading and when the speech is intended to incite violence or, in some other way, cause harm. In certain situations, other exceptions may be necessary but, in general, the previous ones are the only ones that apply generally. Outside of those exceptions all speech should be protected. If, as is currently the case, other exceptions are made then I do not see how you can claim to support free speech. Indeed, I’m not even sure a position of limited free speech is even coherent.

WEIT has a recent post in support of free speech and linking to two articles. I want to quote the opening paragraph of the article from The Economist as it really sets the stage for my post:

THE march in Paris after the massacre at Charlie Hebdo was supposed to display international solidarity over the right of free expression. In retrospect, it was a pageant more of hypocrisy than of principle. The Russian foreign minister’s attendance did not stop two of his countrymen being prosecuted in Moscow for holding Je Suis Charlie placards. His Saudi Arabian counterpart apparently saw no contradiction between the parade and the public flogging of a blogger in Jeddah two days before. Turkey is a champion locker-up of journalists, but its shameless prime minister turned up all the same. Meanwhile, somewhat misconstruing the point, in the name of modesty an Israeli ultra-Orthodox publication photoshopped the female leaders from its coverage.

How can someone march for free speech while punishing it at home? This isn’t limited to autocracies and theocracies but also to the supposed first world in Europe. Germany is well-known for its laws against any sort of Nazi symbology. Austria has similar laws and has recently prosecuted people for holding specific political beliefs. (See here and here.) This is something one might expect in Russia or China but not in Europe.

The biggest stumbling block for free speech concerns any discourse on religion. This can go both ways, sometimes religion is favoured and sometimes the opposite is true. So when a teacher is investigated by Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counterterrorism for saying that killing someone is a legitimate punishment for insulting Islam one has to wonder what that decision is based on. Is it a crime to propose that capital punishment may be appropriate in certain circumstances? Would the same happen to a person who advocates for the death penalty to be reinstated? Or is the government enforcing its own theological views on the teacher whereby only certain religions interpretations are acceptable? This seems just a few steps removed from Indonesia where only six religions are legal. This violates both freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Unfortunately, Austria is one of the countries that has blasphemy laws. These are completely anachronistic and lead to more questions. For example, look at these cases from Austria.

On Jan. 22, 2009, the Austrian politician Susanne Winter was sentenced at a court in Graz to pay a $24,000 fine for “humiliating a religion” by saying, among other things, that Mohammed was a paedophile.

On Jan. 15, 2011, Elizabeth Sabaditsch-Wolf was convicted of offending religion because she exclaimed, about the Prophet Mohammed’s nine-year-old wife, “If that is not paedophilia, what is it?”

These examples make me wonder what it is that the court is trying to say. Perhaps they are taking a nuanced view of sexuality; saying that taking a nine-year-old wife and having sex with a pre-pubescent child (some scholars say she had had her first period and could’ve even been 12-18) is not paedophilia because the sex act does not necessarily require a sexual desire for children. It might be interesting then whether they would convict someone for saying that a school teacher who had sex with a ten-year-old girl was a paedophile or not.

Or, perhaps, they are not saying anything about paedophilia and merely that stating such a fact is offensive and that alone is a crime. Would it then be a crime to point out if a Christian priest was stealing money from the collection plate? Surely that would “humiliate a religion.” Or perhaps reporting on the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church is also not allowed in case it offends a religion?

In case the last examples are the case then we might wonder why religion is given such special treatment. Why should insulting a religion be a criminal act but not insulting a soccer team? If a cartoonist draws political satire why is that treated differently to religious satire?

Austria is not the only country in Europe with antiquated blasphemy laws either. This week saw an open letter sent by Atheist Ireland to Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach of Ireland. The letter calls for the repeal of Ireland’s blasphemy laws and is signed by many notable figures including Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne (Whose new book, Faith Vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, will be released later this year.), Steven Pinker and Maryam Namazie among others.

It is not possible to maintain restrictions on free speech and consistency at the same time. Despite good intentions, you end up with governments of countries where citizens are supposedly free acting as though they are a dictatorship which gets to decide whose views are acceptable. When it comes to religion and blasphemy laws we are left with a senseless morass of conflicting laws that are either applied arbitrarily or require the government to have the sort of theological insight that would make it capable of deciding the “one true religion.”

Just as I was finishing this up I saw (via The Friendly Atheist) that, during a debate on free speech in Copenhagen, 40 shots were fired, killing one and injuring three others. The attack might have been targeting a Swedish cartoonist who had drawn caricatures of Mohammed in 2007. Valentine’s Day is not a good day for free speech.

Before people start claiming that this was his own fault for drawing those cartoons, ask yourself this. If someone supported Manchester United and said that he would kill anyone who said something bad about the team and then followed through with those threats, who would you blame? The person who merely uttered some words or the person who pulled the trigger? It doesn’t matter if someone else’s speech offends your religion, your political party or your sports team, this sort of response is never appropriate and should be condemned by everyone in the strongest words possible.

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One thought on “If not free speech then what?

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