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John Simkin

Democracy and Freedom of Speech

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Interesting article by Ronald Dworkin in the Guardian today about democracy and freedom of speech. Dworkin is professor of law at University College, London.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1709372,00.html

The British media were right, on balance, not to republish the Danish cartoons that millions of furious Muslims protested against in violent and terrible destruction around the world. Reprinting would very likely have meant more people killed and more property destroyed. It would have caused many British Muslims great pain because they would have been told that the publication was intended to show contempt for their religion, and though that perception would have been inaccurate and unjustified the pain would nevertheless have been genuine. True, readers and viewers who have been following the story might well have wanted to judge the cartoons' impact, humour and offensiveness for themselves, and the media might therefore have felt some responsibility to provide that opportunity. But the public does not have a right to read or see whatever it wants no matter what the cost, and the cartoons are in any case widely available on the internet.

Sometimes the media's self-censorship means the loss of significant information, argument, literature or art, but not in this case. Not publishing may seem to give a victory to the fanatics who instigated the violence and therefore incite them to similar tactics in the future. But there is some evidence that the wave of rioting and destruction - suddenly, four months after the cartoons were first published - was orchestrated from the Middle East for larger political reasons. If that analysis is correct, then keeping the issue boiling by fresh republications would actually serve the interests of those responsible and reward their strategies of terror.

There is a real danger, however, that the decision of British media not to publish, though wise, will be wrongly taken as an endorsement of the widely held opinion that freedom of speech has limits, that it must be balanced against the virtues of multiculturalism, and that the government was right after all to propose that it be made a crime to publish anything "abusive or insulting" to a religious group. Freedom of speech is not just a special and distinctive emblem of western culture that might be generously abridged or qualified as a measure of respect for other cultures that reject it, the way a crescent or menorah might be added to a Christian religious display. Free speech is a condition of legitimate government. Laws and policies are not legitimate unless they have been adopted through a democratic process, and a process is not democratic if government has prevented anyone from expressing his convictions about what those laws and policies should be. Ridicule is a distinct kind of expression; its substance cannot be repackaged in a less offensive rhetorical form without expressing something very different from what was intended. That is why cartoons and other forms of ridicule have for centuries, even when illegal, been among the most important weapons of both noble and wicked political movements.

So in a democracy no one, however powerful or impotent, can have a right not to be insulted or offended. That principle is of particular importance in a nation that strives for racial and ethnic fairness. If weak or unpopular minorities wish to be protected from economic or legal discrimination by law - if they wish laws enacted that prohibit discrimination against them in employment, for instance - then they must be willing to tolerate whatever insults or ridicule people who oppose such legislation wish to offer to their fellow voters, because only a community that permits such insult may legitimately adopt such laws. If we expect bigots to accept the verdict of the majority once the majority has spoken, then we must permit them to express their bigotry in the process whose verdict we ask them to respect. Whatever multiculturalism means - whatever it means to call for increased "respect" for all citizens and groups - these virtues would be self-defeating if they were thought to justify official censorship.

Muslims who are outraged by the Danish cartoons point out that in several European countries it is a crime publicly to deny, as the president of Iran has denied, that the Holocaust ever took place. They say that western concern for free speech is therefore only self-serving hypocrisy, and they have a point. But of course the remedy is not to make the compromise of democratic legitimacy even greater than it already is but to work toward a new understanding of the European convention on human rights that would strike down the Holocaust-denial law and similar laws across Europe for what they are: violations of the freedom of speech that that convention demands.

It is often said that religion is special, because people's religious convictions are so central to their personalities that they should not be asked to tolerate ridicule in that dimension, and because they might feel a religious duty to strike back at what they take to be sacrilege. Britain has apparently embraced that view because it retains the crime of blasphemy, though only for insults to Christianity. But we cannot make an exception for religious insult if we want to use law to protect the free exercise of religion in other ways. If we want to forbid the police from profiling people who look or dress like Muslims for special searches, for example, we cannot also forbid people from opposing that policy by claiming, in cartoons or otherwise, that Islam is committed to terrorism, however silly we think that opinion is. Religion must be tailored to democracy, not the other way around. No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be drawn any more than it can legislate about what may or may not be eaten. No one's religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.

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Interesting article by Ronald Dworkin in the Guardian today about democracy and freedom of speech. Dworkin is professor of law at University College, London.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,,1709372,00.html

The British media were right, on balance, not to republish the Danish cartoons that millions of furious Muslims protested against in violent and terrible destruction around the world. Reprinting would very likely have meant more people killed and more property destroyed. It would have caused many British Muslims great pain.....

Religion must be tailored to democracy, not the other way around. No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be drawn any more than it can legislate about what may or may not be eaten. No one's religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.

The final paragraph of Professor Dworkin's article seems to be in contradiction with his opening paragraph. I would like to think that the British Press decided not to publish the offensive cartoons not because religion legislates what can or cannot be drawn, but simply because the cartoons in question were in very poor taste and that their publication would be, at best, no more than an exercise in bad manners.

Legislation will hardly cure bad manners, whose antidote is best found in the realities of life. If you insult someone who is near and dear to me, you should not be surprised if I give you a good punch in the kisser. Not that I have any conscious inclination to resort to violence, you understand, its just that I cannot help the way my species evolved and therefore cannot guarantee a peaceful reaction if the provocation is sufficiently severe. You may then sue me for Battery, of course, and we will have to abide by the decision of the judge or jury, as the case may be.

An old and venerable doctrine of the Common Law (I have not checked for changes in the last 20-odd years) provided that "provocation beyond human endurance" is a defense to a charge of battery. Of course what is beyond endurance will vary with the individual or group, and I suspect that there are editors (or ex-editors) in Denmark, Norway and France who could now tell you quite a bit about that subject.

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Muslims who are outraged by the Danish cartoons point out that in several European countries it is a crime publicly to deny, as the president of Iran has denied, that the Holocaust ever took place. They say that western concern for free speech is therefore only self-serving hypocrisy, and they have a point. But of course the remedy is not to make the compromise of democratic legitimacy even greater than it already is but to work toward a new understanding of the European convention on human rights that would strike down the Holocaust-denial law and similar laws across Europe for what they are: violations of the freedom of speech that that convention demands.

I have no time for people who deny the Holocaust. However, their crime needs to be seen in perspective. Who is worst, the people who denied it happened, or the people who allowed it to happen? What about those British and American politicians who denied Jews entry when they tried to flee from Nazi Germany? What about those British and American military commanders who refused to bomb the transport links to the concentration camps?

My least favourite historian, David Irving, aged 67, has been held in an Austrian prison since 17th November, 2005, because he said in 2000 that there had been no gas chambers at the Auschwitz camp. Yet this is a country that elected a former Nazi to become its president.

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Guest Stephen Turner
My least favourite historian, David Irving, aged 67, has been held in an Austrian prison since 17th November, 2005, because he said in 2000 that there had been no gas chambers at the Auschwitz camp. Yet this is a country that elected a former Nazi to become its president.

John, IMO we need to take into account the damage Irving has done by providing a sheen of respectability, and scholarship to these vile views. Everwhere that the Neo-nazis spread their propaganda without fear of reprisal, becomes a vertual no-go area for sections of our society, people of colour, muslems, women,Homosexuals all suffer mentally, and physically because of the unopposed propergation of facist filth.

I was part of a working class movement that smashed the BNP in the 1970s, I still have the scars to prove it, and I am proud of every single one. With nazis the old saying Give em an inch, and they take a mile is most apropriate.

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I have no time for people who deny the Holocaust. However, their crime needs to be seen in perspective.

In many countries Holocaust deniers are free to spout their calumnies wheresover they please. In such an environment it is important that their position should not be taken by anyone as a legitimate side of an historical debate. This takes a good deal of vigilance from those who choose to engage with them. It also relies on intelligent people choosing to engage with them. In much of central Europe holocaust denial is illegal. I am not sure which is the best defence against what amounts to an attack on truth and history.

I do not believe the European media who published the recent anti Islamic cartoons did so motivated by the desire to promote free speech. I believe they were intentionally trying to be gratuitously offensive.

I do not however believe that ridiculing an organized religion is quite the same as denying the organized extermination of an entire people - such relativism does nothing to further our understanding.

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In Sweden an attempt is made to balance freedom and responsibility in public utterances with the system of 'ansvarig utgivare' (person responsibile for publication). If you publish views on a website, or in a forum, or on paper, some named, identifiable person has to be nominated as responsible for the site, forum, book or newspaper. It's a bit like the requirement on this forum to publish a biography - it helps people to put a limit on their own behaviour.

As regards Denmark, I don't think it's widely known just how racist the Danish government has become over the last few years. Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, won the last election with a deliberate strategy of blaming Muslims for society's ills, and his government has been heavily influenced by the Danish People's Party (more or less like the BNP: their leader's latest announcement - after the xxxx hit the fan - was "Islam is like a weed that's spread over our country and we're the people to root it out").

I've been struck by the sanction this has given to everyday acts of racist abuse, such as being on a bus in Copenhagen and seeing a white Dane turn round to a coloured Dane with a headscarf and say "You trash shouldn't be allowed to sit on the same seats as decent people" … and watching the rest of the passengers either look away in embarrassment or smile in approval. It doesn't half remind you of another country not that far away from Denmark, who had plenty of the same sort of sentiments in the 1930s towards another religious minority.

The Danish right like to say that Sweden (and other countries) has exactly the same situation as Denmark, it's just that the Danes are brave enough to talk about it. What a load of rubbish! (I'd write something stronger, but I don't want to offend sensitivities!).

It's about time the record of the Scandinavian right vis-à-vis Nazism was put under the spotlight - it's not a nice story … and there's plenty of evidence of a direct continuation from then to now.

The bottom line is: how do you defend democracy from the forces which are actively trying to destroy it? I'm not talking about a politically powerless group (in Western Europe) like the Muslims, but of politically powerful groups, like the assorted mainstream right-wing political parties in Europe. We know what happened in Germany in the 1930s …

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