Monday, 11 April 2011

Why is free speech so difficult for some people to comprehend?

This post is an archive. The live version can be found on a new blog called Arsehole Justice (no offence).

I haven't been very good about writing in my blog recently. The urge comes and goes. There's something I wanted to write about last week, but I waited too long and lost the desire. Something I've just seen has brought it back though. What I'd intended to write about this time last week was the attitudes of a couple of US Senators towards free speech. The Senators are Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and the context is the recent burning of a copy of the Quran by Florida pastor Terry Jones (the same one who threatened to burn copies of the Quran last year). The two Senators are upset and rightly so by the rioting in Mazar-I-Sharif, Afghanistan that killed eight United Nations workers. But somehow they overlook the fact that these killings were done by people who share a warped sense of justice, regardless of how or even whether they might have been incited to violence.

On Sunday the 3rd of April, Senator Reid had this to say to Bob Schieffer on CBS's Face the Nation explaining that some members of Congress were considering some kind of action in response to the Quran burning, a political expression protected by the First Amendment: "Ten to 20 people have been killed," adding "We'll take a look at this of to whether we need hearings or not, I don't know." On the same program, Senator Graham said the following (which would be laughably ridiculous if he weren't a law maker):

"I wish we could find a way to hold people accountable. Free speech is a great idea, but we're in a war. During World War II, we had limits on what you could say if it would inspire the enemy. So, burning a Koran is a terrible thing but it doesn't justify killing someone. Burning a Bible would be a terrible thing but it doesn't justify murder. Having said that, anytime we can push back here in America against actions like this that put our troops at risk we should do it, and I look forward to working with Senators Kerry, and Reid, and others to condemn this, condemn violence all over the world based on the name of religion. But General Petreaus understand better than anybody else in America what happens when something like this is done in our country and he was right to condemn it and I think Congress would be right to reinforce what General Petreasus said."

So much to pick apart here. Free speech is not just a great idea. It is the cornerstone of a healthy democracy. It must be protected at all costs, barring certain well established exceptions where actual harm is directly caused. Graham is right that Koran burning is a terrible thing (to some) and that it doesn't justify killing someone. Why not leave it there? That says it all. Pastor Jones is in no way responsible for the killings of innocent people in Afghanistan. You might as well claim that the Martin Scorcese film Taxi Driver is responsible for the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan or the rock group AC/DC is responsible for the work of serial killer Richard Ramirez, who claimed to have been influenced by their track Night Prowler. Some have tried to make the latter claim, but thankfully these people have always been a sliver of a minority. It is worrying though that this attitude is becoming acceptable and even mainstream, particularly where terrorism is concerned. The people responsible for the killings are the rioters and the mullahs who spurred them on.

Terrorism is nothing new, although it has taken on elevated political significance since the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001. The history of terrorism is thought to go back to the beginning of the first century AD, when a Jewish extremist group called the Sicarii Zealots attacked collaborators with Rome. Why should such an ancient form of violence suddenly threaten our core freedoms? Freedom of speech is a great idea especially because we are at war. It is a war that the West will probably always be waging. Although he refers to World War II, Graham is most likely thinking of World War I when President Woodrow Wilson passed the Espionage Act 1917 and the Sedition Act 1918. The second of these two laws was a horrible overreach that forbade the use of "disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language" about the United States government, its flag, or its armed forces or that caused others to view the American government or its institutions with contempt. It was thankfully repealed two years later. This goes to show just how fragile freedom of speech can be, particularly in times of war. The Espionage Act is still in force today and Congress are attempting to use it to prosecute Julian Assange of Wikileaks.

Does the action of one crackpot in Florida put our troops at risk? No. That would be attaching too much importance to Pastor Terry Jones. Let's not inflate his ego or next thing he'll be setting mosques alight. What might put our troops at risk is United States foreign policy. I believe General Petraeus would agree. As Jim Treacher of The Daily Caller says in the headline of his article from the 4th of April, "The President of the United States bombs a Muslim country, and some nobody in Florida burns a Koran. Guess which one's to blame for rioting in Afghanistan?" Yes, the rioters were incited to violence. However the blame for this lies squarely on the shoulders of a few angry mullahs, not some idiot halfway round the globe who burned a book.

What got me thinking about this again was something my friend Padraig Reidy of Index on Censorhip wrote about the Independent columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and her "interesting" take on freedom of speech as she outlined it in her column today. Some may remember Alibhai-Brown for her involvement in a case that briefly paralleled the Twitter Joke Trial, when she initially sought the prosecution of conservative councillor Gareth Compton over a provocative comment he made about her on Twitter. Free speech seems to be a difficult concept for some people to grasp. Our prejudices sometimes get in the way. This is precisely why it must be protected.

1 comment:

  1. Why is it that the illiberal liberal self-loathing corrupt elite regimes that are governing most western countries think that freedom of speech only applies to those who they agree with?


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