Sunday, 1 April 2012

The Free Speech Conundrum

Is there an absolute freedom to say whatever one wishes to say? And can it never be curtailed except when it is exercised to interrupt someone else who is already speaking? If so, it would follow that whoever manages to open his mouth first would be able to carry on speaking, with the knowledge that anyone interrupting him would be judged to be in the wrong and subject to punishment.

That would appear to be the rationale when a most venerated university in the UK informed a research student that he would be suspended for over two years for reading out a poem when a politician was speaking. But surely no one can expect to say whatever they want, for however long they want, regardless of what they are actually saying.

Of course the great John Locke declared that “the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth, and of every particular man’s goods and person.” He illustrated his case by pointing out that while he would disagree with a Roman Catholic who claimed that a piece of bread was the body of Christ, he would be against any attempt to forbid him preaching or professing his belief, because it “does no injury thereby to his neighbour”.

Unfortunately, Locke’s distinction gets into difficulties when what is professed and preached contradicts what others may consider harmful. What if someone wants to tell his gullible congregation to embrace as holy water what we understand to be concentrated sulphuric acid? Or a person tells his young children that jumping off a tall building will guarantee their passage to heaven and eternal happiness? An orator who informs his listeners that anyone who fails to obstruct mix-race or same-sex relationships in their neighbourhood would burn in hell for allowing sins to spread?

Should all such people be allowed to speak without interruption? What if they manage to convince their listeners to act on the harmful falsehoods they propagate? Ultimately we cannot get away from the burden of verity. We have a responsibility to differentiate truth claims along a spectrum of justifiable beliefs – from those which unless strong contrary evidence can be clearly and consistently adduced have to be accepted as indisputable, through claims which on balance should be granted on current evidence, claims which are understandably contested without any clear-cut conclusion, to those which no one in a reasonable state of mind can be expected to embrace.

If we refuse to recognise that the legitimacy of speech has to be linked to an objective assessment of the truth of its contents, especially relating to what might protect or injure others, then tragically anything goes. Indeed it is this refusal that has led to public policies which enable parents with dubious views to bring their children up to harbour vicious hatred of other races, to consider the murder of one’s religious enemies as a passport to heaven, or to reject life-saving blood transfusion on the grounds that it is against the will of God.

A similar tendency in politics has paved the way for deception and distortion to spread in the name of the freedom of speech: denial of historical records of grotesque treatment of ethnic minorities, rejection of scientific proof of climate change being accelerated by human activities, pretence that the continued redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich is not harming the poor, or insistence that the prospect of unprecedented debt would not make many young people without rich parents think twice before pursuing higher education.

Peddlers of harmful lies, whether dressed up as religiously sincere or politically committed, should be rigorously opposed. Don’t let them hide behind the sanctity of ‘free speech’. Who are we to judge? As a society we are called upon to judge all the time – what is harmful, what is not? We may judge wrongly at times, but when we do, we know we can rely on others to challenge us. We then have to respond by examining the reasonableness of their case. What is patently unreasonable is to declare that any attempt to obstruct someone speaking in any forum must be wrong and severely punished. Sometimes an act of defiance deserves praise.