Fading Freedom of Speech

I recall once discussing the matter of freedom with a group of similar-minded people. Somebody made the comment that commitment to the principle of "freedom of speech" was the hallmark of a free society. In other words, if freedom of speech was absent or curtailed - then so was freedom itself.

These days, when we're told by our leaders that we are engaged in a war in defence of our freedoms, it pays to stop and think about what is really at stake. And the first place to stop and ponder, is on the very meaning of "freedom of speech".

What exactly IS freedom of speech?

In the wake of the terrorist bombings in London, it would appear the right to free speech no longer includes the right to preach "radical" fundamentalist Islam. The reason given is that if Imams stir up hatred by their preaching, then impressionable young men may become next month's suicide bombers.

Stirring up hatred, of course, is a very malleable concept - and one has to assume that if any Imam were to simply give an account of the historical exploits of both the British and American Empires in the Arab lands - then such information may well "incite hatred" against the exploiters.

Germany has a "Holocaust Denial" law, with which it seeks to prosecute anyone who casts doubt on the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. In other words, if you go about asserting that only two million people were killed, not six million - then you're putting yourself in their firing line, and could end up in jail.

Racial vilification laws seek to prohibit any comment or speech which may cast members of a particular racial group in a bad light. The racial group in question may vary from country to country - depending on the current fad in victimology. But one group seems to be exempt from this - the generic racial group known as "white".

A "hate crime" is apparently when you commit some felony which is motivated by hatred of the hapless victim. In the past a crime was a crime, and if you killed someone the motivation was not the main issue - apart from assisting the police to find a suspect. In defining a crime by the motivation behind it - it's an easy step to then prohibit words that stir up such hatred in the first place.

This has given rise to the term "hate speech" - which is defined, by Wikipedia, as 'speech intended to degrade, intimidate, or incite violence or prejudicial action against someone based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, or disability'.

As you can see, this covers a lot of territory and you could easily find yourself on the wrong side of the law in regard to these restrictions on your freedom of speech. In fact, given that all speech (or written commentary) starts with a thought, it would seem logical that we proceed to the next preventative step - 'thought crime' - a term made famous in George Orwell's "1984".

In "1984, to even consider a thought, which is not in line with the principles of Ingsoc, is to commit 'Thought Crime' or be guilty of 'Crimethink" - which is "the essential crime that contains all others in itself".

All words start with thoughts. In fact, so do all actions. Was it not Jesus or some other Biblical figure who stated that even thinking about killing someone was tantamount to killing them. The thought itself was the root of the evil - and provided the necessary precondition to declare everybody a sinner. After all, everyone has had bad thoughts at some time or another!

And that is the path current anti-freedom of speech legislation is taking us down.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. When exactly is a crime committed? Is it when you think about it. Is it when you write about it? Is it when you talk about it? Or is it when you ACT on it?

The very freedoms our leaders say we are defending are at stake here, so getting this right is of paramount importance.

What makes our Common Law-rooted freedoms what they are, is that they define a crime as a specific action which violatates the life or property of another person. If I steal your car I have committed a crime. If I think about stealing it I haven't. If I murder your wife I have committed a crime. If I only think about it I haven't.

But what if I give voice to my thoughts and SAY that I'm going to steal your car? What if I write a little tract outlining HOW I intend to steal it? Obviously such statements, whether written or oral, could be considered as a threat. And threatening someone may indeed result in some sort of sanction being applied. But is a threat the same as an act?

Then there's the classic case of someone shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre - as a prank - and causing mass panic. Does a person have the right to utter such words?

As you can see, there are numerous contexts involving speech and how it can impact on others. But the essential question is, what are the limits of freedom of speech?

This can be best answered by looking at the issue of freedom itself. One only has freedom to the extent that it does not infringe on someone else's freedom. So I cannot claim the freedom to steal your car, as I am infringing on your freedom to own and keep what is yours. To claim such a freedom is to deny yours.

In the same way, my freedom of speech ends where it can be shown to be either denying someone else's freedom of speech, or freedom of action.

It's also worth mentioning that freedom of speech does not mean someone else has to provide you with a platform to exercise it. Having the right to speak freely does not entitle you to an hour of prime time television on someone else's network. No, the freedom to speak or write is a freedom of action - not a right to the means of communication. That is something you have to provide for yourself.

The creation of the concept of 'hate speech' has given rise to a new class of crime, and is a direct attack on what we have traditionally accepted as freedom of speech.

To racially slur someone, or call them "names", may certainly hurt their feelings, but it does not hurt their person. It's not the same as mugging them. It does not infringe on their right to free speech or action. They are free to call me names back.

To claim the war in Iraq is wrong and that those who led us into it did so under false pretences and should be convicted as war criminals, may get up the noses of those who think otherwise, but it hardly constitutes any sort of crime.

To make historically revisionist statements claiming that less than 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, may certainly offend and anger many people - but that is not a justification for suppressing such a dissenting view. The issue here is not whether the statement is true or not, but whether someone has the right to utter it.

In each of the above, it is claimed that such "speech" stirs up hatred of one sort or another, and should therefore be banned. But this reasoning belongs to a world we thought we had left behind long ago - the Dark Ages! Back then it was normal to kill or torture people for expressing views opposed to the accepted wisdom - like suggesting the earth orbited the sun, instead of the other way around.

But would the same sanctions apply if you questioned the Theory of Evolution? Would you think it reasonable to be locked up, or worse, for disagreeing with it?

If you stood up in London's Hyde Park and said "There is no God", would you expect to be arrested and charged with conspiracy to incite hatred against Christians?

Are you currently allowed to endorse or disagree with the new sciences of genetic engineering or cloning? Of course you are, and to think that expressing an opinion either way could land you in jail seems absurd. But it is not - not the way things are going.

Such questioning is the basis of all scientific enquiry. If no one could question things, then there would be no scientific or technical progress. There would only be Orwell's "Ministry of Truth". Our very advancement as a species depends on the right to ask questions, the right to question accepted theories and viewpoints - even accepted "facts"! Nothing should be sacrosanct. Nothing should be beyond questioning.

At it's root, the attack on freedom of speech is essentially an attack on our right to use our minds, think our own thoughts, ask hard questions, utter our own conclusions and state our disagreements with what is before us - right or wrong. The only acceptable form of rebuttal is to disagree in the same manner - verbally or in writing.

We may not like what other people say. It may offend us. It may contradict what we believe. It may threaten our world view. But unless such people are actually threatening our person or property, then their right to their opinions and our acceptance of that right, is a measure of the amount of freedom we are willing to tolerate - and actually want.

To say that such speech "may" incite someone ELSE to act in an inappropriate way or commit a real crime, is an attempt to establish 'Thought Crime' as an operational legal procedure. And conversely, to try and trace back all criminal acts to ideas expressed by others, or even thought in private - is to seek to obliterate the important distinction between thought, speech and action. That road most certainly leads to a totalitarian hell.

All the huffing and puffing about advancing freedom in the world is just hot air, if one of the fundamentals of our own freedoms, the freedom of speech, is being suppressed and denied in the process.

Yours in Freedom

David MacGregor