Opinion: Free Speech

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Dylan Maryk - Contributor

On 15th December 1791, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution was adopted, stating, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”. The concept of free speech, I submit, must be considered core to democracy and a fundamental human right, for it allows for completely open and honest discussion and debate, which is surely ideal and necessary for a society that collectively desires, at least in theory if not entirely in practice, liberty and freedom. Over two centuries later however, the upholding of such an essential value continues to repeatedly fail, and in my defense of freedom of speech and freedom of expression I intend to portray, condemn and argue against such weakness and cowardice that disappointingly suggests democratic populations will take what they themselves consider their rights for granted, as though they need not be defended, to then allow them to crumble.

I intend to focus on two key points with regards to the subject. Firstly, that no line to what may be said or written in the public domain should be drawn, and an absolutist approach must be taken. While this clearly cannot be extended so ruthlessly to the production of certain visual media due to potential victimisation or the demonstration of serious harm, such as with the distribution of photographs of child pornography, or of video footage of any individual without their consent, it must be admitted that this is a form of censorship whether the vast majority welcomes it or not, and hence one must be wary of allowing the line to be pushed any further; if a line is to be drawn in some cases, it must be firmly held in place with a reluctance to allow its movement. However, as I consider this a slightly separate branch of discussion I will leave it at that for the time being, and I hope you do not believe me to be dodging the subject. Secondly, and I think more importantly and to be the crux of my argument, there is a dangerous unwillingness to protect free speech, particularly throughout the Western world, often out of fear, a desire to refrain from causing offense or even simply because it may not comply with the accepted views of the majority. Free speech is an essential right and must as a result be defended.

Unfortunately, particularly in circumstances where offense is caused, people frequently back off from any kind of necessary confrontation and tend to forget their support for what should be an unalterable conviction. In September 2005, twelve cartoons depicting and satirising the Islamic prophet Muhammad were published in a Danish newspaper. Because the prime minister of a small democracy refused to break the law of his own country and censor the newspaper, outrage was sparked across the Muslim world, with demonstrations far from peaceful being held in countries where protest is not normally permitted. The Danish embassy in Syria was burnt, innocents were killed, death threats were issued and diplomatic immunity was violated. If this was not a disgusting and menacing challenge to free expression, it is not clear what is. Surely therefore, those in the West would clearly show their hand in the matter and express solidarity with the Danes while condemning the campaign of violence? Instead, most newspapers and magazines refused to reprint the cartoons out of fear, even with no prior threat directed at any member of the press outside of Denmark. While the Pope stated, “intolerance and violence can never be justified as responses to offenses”, he also felt he must say, “It is necessary and urgent that religions and their symbols are respected”. This is rather a fair summary of the mindset of a large number of people, especially where religious beliefs, or any personal beliefs for that matter, are concerned; exercise free speech, but refrain from being insensitive and causing insult. This is a contemptible if not simply nonsensical position, firstly because the right to free speech must by definition include the right to offend and secondly because the type of speech that most frequently comes under attack, and hence needs to be protected, is that which is offensive. We simply cannot give in to violence and intimidation so easily, especially when not directed specifically at us.

In order to summarise the French writer, historian and philosopher Voltaire’s attitude, Evelyn Beatrice Hall wrote, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to death your right to say it.” This is certainly my position on the arrest of multiple men due to their racist or anti-religious comments regarding the murder of Lee Rigby in May of this year. Just as with those who would have desired to form their own opinions on the Danish cartoon controversy at the time, yet were not able to due to the reluctance to reprint them, I would much like to provide my own, bespoke opinion on these comments (originally posted on Twitter), yet am unable to since I can find no newspaper’s website which shows them (if anyone has found one, I would much appreciate if you could direct me to it). On a side note, surely the police had more important matters to be seeing to at the time? Once again, citizens of a democratic nation are unable to formulate their own opinion because the law has classified a particular piece of text as being illegal.

 

In an age full of consistent threats of Internet censorship, among the other forms of opposition to freedom of speech and expression I have described, it is about time particularly in Britain, throughout Europe and across democratic nations that we drive a legal change, bringing protection of this essential liberty at least closer in value lawfully to its status in the United States. While as I have shown the First Amendment is often unhelpful even there, the forming of laws and being able to reference them is helpful in the establishment of free speech as a core and definite requirement throughout human civilisation, for drawing a line on what may be said, written or even caricatured will always end with the imprisonment of historians who deny the Holocaust, with the arrest of citizens for voicing opinions on Twitter and with the Vietnamese people being told they may exchange only “personal information” online. So my final point would be in the form of a question, should you remain unconvinced. If you believe a line on free speech ought to be drawn, I ask you to consider the following: Is there a single person or organisation to whom you would designate and allow the task of deciding, for you, what you can read and what you can hear from a fellow member of the human species? Personally, I insist I obtain the right to read, hear, think and decide on matters for myself.

This guest post can also be found on  Dylan Maryk's personal blog.

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