Do our politicians understand what ‘freedom of speech’ means?

I’ve been surprised at some of the people defending Jacqui Smith’s refusal to allow the Dutch politician Geert Wilders to enter the UK to show his anti-Islamic film ‘Fitna’ (viewable here). Take for example Chris Huhne, writing for the Liberty Central section of the Guardian’s website. Huhne begins by avowing his commitment to free speech, but goes on to argue that “there has to be a dividing line between freedom of speech and an incitement to hatred and violence”. I want to show that there can be no such line – at least, no sharp and simple one which denies that the principles which support free speech can apply to cases of incitement.

Needless to say, the question of what exactly free speech consists in and why it is worth protecting is complex, and it is surprisingly hard to give a principled answer which supports the contemporary liberal consensus about what should and should not be protected. That is because the idea that speech should be free has become a piety of our society, explicitly challenged only by marginal figures like those who protested the Danish cartoons of Mohammed with signs reading “Free speech go to hell”, and we have consequently not been forced to think about why it is so important. Huhne’s failure to see that freedom of speech has to cover Wilders’ film is an example of what this leads to. (John Stuart Mill would not have been surprised; one of his arguments for free speech in On Liberty was that our beliefs would degenerate into “dead dogmas” if we did not have to defend them against rival opinions.)

Our commitment to free speech means something only if it covers speech we would otherwise be tempted to restrain; otherwise, it would be a fifth wheel, and never have been controversial. To meet this test, it is not enough to grandiloquently avow that, like Voltaire, we would “fight to the death” for the right of people to disagree with us. Even in Voltaire’s time, authorities limited speech only when they thought it a threat to the fabric of society or their subjects’ immortal souls, rather than simply disagreeing with it. Modern societies congratulate themselves on permitting the sort of dissent which would have been criminal a few centuries ago, but the reality is that they find it easy, because they have recognised that it does little harm (and enjoy no consensus about the fate of their citizens’ souls). They do not find it so easy to permit the dissemination of works like Wilders’, which they do worry will cause serious harm.

“Incitement to hatred and violence” is of course a classic case of speech which does harm, and which there can therefore be serious arguments for restricting. But if what I have just said is correct then considerations of free speech do not thereby cease to apply to it; on the contrary, this is the sort of the case in which they can potentially make a real difference, by outweighing powerful competing considerations. Like all moral considerations (save perhaps a general principle of beneficience), they will be controversial, splintering the current consensus about free speech. Take for example the view that the discussion of ideas is intrinsically valuable, or that there should be a presumption in favour of any form of freedom. Like many people, I find these principles persuasive, but also see the intuitive force of the utilitarian view that only states of consciousness can be intrinsically valuable, which contradicts them. Similarly contentious are libertarian claims about appropriate limits on the power of the state.

Other considerations in favour of free speech are less controversial, but cannot be straightforwardly applied to all cases. This is the case with Mill’s claim that any opinion may turn out to be true or “part of the truth”, so allowing its discussion will serve the ends of truth-directed enquiry. Most would accept this as a general claim but not be moved by it when considering the incitement of some particular preacher or populist whom they regard as vanishingly unlikely to be correct. This is not automatically unreasonable; if we did not regard some views as so unlikely that they can effectively be ignored for the purposes of decision-making, we would be paralysed by inaction.

The only way to salvage the simplicity of Huhne’s “dividing line” would be to argue that any idea can be expressed without inciting hatred and violence, so that we can protect expression without protecting incitement. But that is just not true. Claiming that a particular situation calls for violence both expresses and idea and excites action. Likewise, the message of Wilders’ film, conveyed by the juxtaposition of disturbing verses from the Koran and hideous images of jihadist violence, is that Islam itself is repugnant – and it is not obvious that those who accept hateful ideologies are never themselves hateful. Accordingly, it is not hard to understand why Jacqui Smith might view it as an incitement to hatred with the potential to stir up conflict. But to leap from that to the conclusion that he should not be allowed to deliver it is to abandon our commitment to free speech just at the point where it could make a difference.

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