Thursday, February 12, 2009

Freedom To Speak

A Dutch MP who called the Koran a "fascist book" has boarded a flight to the UK despite being banned on public security grounds.

Freedom Party MP Geert Wilders was invited to show his controversial film - which links the Islamic holy book to terrorism - in the UK's House of Lords.

So this has caused a furore in political and media circles, while ordinary people probably couldn't give a damn one way or the other. Such is life. But this situation is incredibly important, because it shows up the chinks in our freedom and exposes our political leaders.

Take this snippet, for example...

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Chris Huhne said he had watched the film, which he called "revolting", and backed the ban.

"Freedom of speech is our most precious freedom of all, because all the other freedoms depend on it," he said.

"But there is a line to be drawn even with freedom of speech, and that is where it is likely to incite violence or hatred against someone or some group."

Now, it is widely recited that the limit to freedom of speech is shouting "fire" in a crowded theatre, and this is indeed the thrust of Chris Huhne's argument. He is saying that direct incitement to hatred or violence is beyond the pale, though there is much to take issue at here in itself - in WW2 would inciting hatred and violence against German's, or more specifically the Nazi's, also fail Huhne's 'freedom hurdle'? Surely feeling motivated to direct violence towards somebody is not a crime unless it is acted upon; afterall, the real crime underlying the law's purpose is the the act of violence itself upon innocent people. So it is perhaps important that a distinction is made.

Secondly, Chris Huhne describes the film as "revolting" and supports the ban. Now the context of that statement implies he supports the ban because he feels the film is revolting. But even if he did feel it was revolting, that is no justification to prevent it being shown, and certainly not justification to censor Geert Wilders and impose censorship on the public.

So returning to my first point about Huhne's insistence that inciting "violence or hatred against someone or some group" is wholly wrong, let us examine it further. Surely it is the incitement of hatred or violence against and innocent person or group which is really wrong. Inciting hatred or violence against individuals (religion is immaterial here) who perpetrate violent acts can surely not be immoral and unlawful. To re-use the WW2 analogy, the government's propaganda could be construed as just that, and yet there was perfect justification for people to feel that way due to the actions of the enemy. But there is yet one further distinction here - that between war and defence. Violence is perfectly legitimate and justified in self defence, and the British government's WW2 propaganda is precisely that. Initiating violence against an innocent party is different.

So we can see that the moral argument must run as follows: that the limit to speak freely resides at the point whereby speaking would precipitate and directly lead to a direct breach of the liberty of another, innocent, individual.

I have not seen Fitna, and have little desire to. From what I understand it expresses an opinion that the Koran should be banned, suggesting it directly leads to the undertaking of violence by a small number of extremist religious radicals. This description, if accurate, does not fail my morality test above, and can even be said to pass Chris Huhne's own test. What it does fail is the sensibility of some of our politicians who wrongly believe they have claim over the freedom of the rest of us; who wrongly believe that their morals ought to be imposed on the rest of us.


Roger Thornhill February 12, 2009 at 7:19 PM  

I have seen some of it and what I saw of it, it was snippets of the Koran interspliced with either acts, descriptions of acts or preechers using references to incite, distort, justify acts.

Huhne is an ass. Period. He *almost* used justification that Geert himself was in danger but also blustered that in some way minorities might be targeted because he would be entering the country. Utter codswallop. No, he was banned I suspect, as otherwise it would make certain people bust a vessel and/or organise their own civil disruption not in support, but against - i.e. he was kept out because others would protest and the Police incapable, it seems of properly responding to Islamist* behaviour, would not be capable of maintaining law and order.

* i.e. not Muslim.

Anonymous February 14, 2009 at 2:43 PM  

So according to Huhne (and possibly you, too), it's not permitted to shout "Fire" in a crowded theatre even when there actually is a fire?

Because that, more or less, is what Wilders is doing.

As for banning the Koran, all he said actually was, we have laws (in Holland) banning publications that incite violence or hatred; here (and here, and here, and here, etc etc etc) are the places where this particular text - the Koran - does just that, explicitly, plainly, indubitably, and beyond all arguments about interpretation; so why does our law not apply in this case?

Seems a reasonable question to me.

I watched the film. It contains gruesome scenes of violence and murder, interspersed with Muslim preachers calling on their followers to behave like that, and passages from the Koran where such things are justified and encouraged.

It's not a great film, or even really a good one, but if there's any hatred or evil in it, that comes straight from the Islamists portrayed and quoted, none is added by the film's creators.

Vindico February 14, 2009 at 3:42 PM  

The full relevant part of the quote of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. was, of course, "The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic..."

digitaltoast February 19, 2009 at 4:10 PM  

I just got off the phone with Liberty, allegedly the defenders of free speech, them having not answered any emails. The reason I called was that I heard someone on The World At One saying how terrible it was that we were all being so nasty to poor Abu Qatada. As this story was only from this morning and they were so quick off the mark, I thought "Hmmm, I must have missed something here regarding Wilders".

I have just been told on the phone by a New Zealand sounding lady that they are "really busy this week and there won't be any statement coming as the whole Geert Wilders thing has been and gone now". When I asked "Why wasn't a statement issued at the time, and would you be prepared to let me know Liberty's stand on this?" I was told "Sorry, I really have to go now". The whole call took under a minute.

PLEASE call, write or email Liberty and keep the pressure on, and politely but firmly re-assure them that the story has not "been and gone"!

This is really really important - a strong test of what Liberty really means and where their allegiance lies.

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