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Friday, May 1, 2015

Warning: Free speech may offend

“The censor's sword pierces deeply into the heart of free expression.” Earl Warren
It is true that the first casualty of a totalitarian regime is the free flow of ideas, most especially those that question its authority or tenets.
This is particularly evident in the single unreformed Abrahamic religion, Islam. It is deeply offended when criticised since it is a ‘faith regarded as revealed through Muhammad as the Prophet of Allah’ and is thus incontestable. The Quran is everything that you need to live your life of worship, so what call for expressing critical views of what it says?
“What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” Salman Rushdie
Free Speech is essential in the discussion and critical examination of ideas. As soon as it is stifled, there is no scope for public examination of alternatives and consequently change to the current order by consensus becomes impossible. It is used as a control device by autocratic regimes to keep the status quo. Islam is a prime example of this and so will always be rooted in the brutal morality of the 7th century, unable to change and ISIS encompasses this with some relish as the model for its barbaric regime.
Under the banner of free expression, ‘Holocaust deniers’, and others whose views seem to fly in the face of reality, must be allowed to be heard. Their own utterances will in the end disbar them from being taken seriously in a free and informed society. I believe we should not legislate against opinions such as these, no matter how ridiculous they seem, simply on the basis of offence, no matter how deep or heartfelt.
However, fourteen European countries have now made Holocaust denial illegal and this has dealt the true concept of free speech a heavy blow. The UK expert ‘against racism and intolerance’, Michael Whine, has said that persecuted minorities:
“are best protected in open and tolerant democracies that actively prosecute all forms of racial and religious hatred."
Surely the essence of an open and tolerant society is allowing the free expression of views even when they may displease, insult or even distress.
“You have the right to be offended but you have no right to demand that I do not offend you”, asserts Maajid Nawaz in his excellent ‘Free Speech’ video It is a view that I entirely subscribe to. Great reformers and philosophers have always offended or blasphemed against accepted norms and he believes that freedom to speak represents our freedom to think.
Of course, freedom of speech and expression will always have limits. The US First Amendment guarantee of free speech and expression as recognized by the Supreme Court is a limited one. You will be prosecuted for incitement, obscenity and threats, for example. There is a broad sweep of exceptions under The Human Rights Act incorporated into UK law including words or behaviour intending or likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress or cause a breach of the peace and also included is incitement to terrorism.
The dangers of curtailing free speech are far greater than accepting the consequences of personal expression within the law.

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