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Free speech on trial

Ralf Dahrendorf, author of numerous books and a former European Commissioner from Germany, is a member of the British House of Lords, a former Rector of the London School of Economics, and a former Warden of St. Antony’s College, Oxford. In this article Ralf discusses the fine line between free speech and incitement. Our editorial caveat is that whilst we agree that, "Holocaust denial should not be outlawed," it remains Webdiary policy to not allow it on this site.

Free speech on trial
by Ralf Dahrendorf

Ralf Dahrendorf

Not so long ago, there was jubilation that the free world and its values had prevailed in the Cold War. When the Communist empire collapsed, some even announced that the victory of liberty and democracy implied the “end of history.”

But history never bowed out; at most, it only took a decade-long intermission, with its next act heralded by the terrorist attacks in the United States in September 2001. And here the plot has thickened. Instead of rejoicing in the liberal order, those of us who have the pleasure of living under it have had to struggle to keep it intact and strong.

Since 9/11, more and more freedoms are being restricted in the name of defending liberty. New visa requirements and other obstacles to travel, more intimate data collected by governments, and the presence of video cameras everywhere – at once benign and intrusive – remind one more of George Orwell’s Big Brother than of John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.

Britain is not the only country where ancient rights of habeas corpus, of the inviolability of the person, are to be restricted by new legislation that, for example, extends the permissible length of detention without charge. Now, even the fundamental right of a liberal order, free speech, is under pressure.

Some restrictions are understandable legacies of the past, but must nevertheless be re-examined. In Austria, the historian David Irving was arrested recently because he has denied that the Holocaust happened. In the prison library, however, Irving found two of the books he had written that had led to his arrest! In Berlin, there is much concern about the possible desecration of the Holocaust Memorial, although its author, the American architect Peter Eisenmann, takes a relaxed view of what is said and done about his creation.

Other restrictions of free speech have more recent triggers. In the Netherlands, the shock that arose over the killing of the film maker Theo van Gogh runs deep and has led to demands for legislation against hate speech. In Britain, proposed legislation concerning incitement to religious hatred and terrorism has led to emotional parliamentary debates – and to doubts about the liberal credentials of Tony Blair’s government.

Can such demands for restricting free speech ever be legitimate? The first and principled answer must surely be no. All freedoms can be abused by liberty’s enemies, but in the case of speech, the risk posed by restricting freedom is surely greater.

Moreover, the benefits of tolerating free speech outweigh the harm of abusing it. Indeed, the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has demonstrated that free speech even helps mitigate seemingly natural catastrophes like famines, because it reveals the ways in which a few haves exploit the many have-nots. As the watchdog organization Transparency International reminds us, corruption exposed is in many cases corruption prevented. These practical consequences are above and beyond the liberating effect of allowing the “marketplace of ideas,” rather than state authorities, to judge people’s expressed views.

Are there really no exceptions to this rule? The classic example comes to mind of the man who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. In the resulting panic, people may be hurt or even killed. Nowadays, we worry about incitement ­– using free speech to provoke violence. I do not know how many Islamic leaders preach murder and mayhem in mosques and help recruit suicide bombers from among their congregants; but even if it is only a handful, they pose a question that must be answered.

That answer must be given carefully. For free societies to flourish, the boundaries of free speech should always be widened rather than narrowed. In my view, Holocaust denial should not be outlawed, in contrast to the demand for all, or any, Jews to be killed. Similarly, attacks against the West in mosques, however vicious, should not be banned, in contrast to open encouragement to join suicide death squads.

What about the mere praise of “martyrs” who have died while murdering others? The boundary between implicit and explicit incitement is not easily drawn, but, again, it should be wider rather than narrower.

Free speech is immensely precious, and so is the dignity and integrity of humans. Both require active and alert citizens who engage what they do not like rather than calling for the state to clamp down on it. Direct incitement to violence is regarded – as it should be ­– as an unacceptable abuse of free speech; but much that is disagreeable about the David Irving’s and the hate preachers does not fall into this category. Their rants should be rejected with argument, not with police and prisons.

Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2005.
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Great bumper sticker

Great bumper sticker here in Seattle in tonight's traffic:

The last time we mixed

Religion and Politics

People were burned at the stake

And I thought, or beaten up on the beaches

It is quiet scary how easily

It is quiet scary how easily some on the left will trash their own beliefs. Only a fortnight ago it was a free for all on the sedition laws. Now some are claiming Alan Jones should be charged under the very same laws that were not passed.

Most leftist politics is reactive and as such appeals to many of the lesser thinking members of a society. For example leftist politics has always been anti free speech hence the blind faith placed in political correctness. Leftist politics is about appealing too and control of the lower classes of society hence also the quick reaction in putting together the most restrictive laws in Australian history without even a complaint.

I certainly am one person who has grave concerns about the rights being taken away from us by the left leaning NSW Government. I am also gravely concerned how willing some here are to junk free speech. It certainly does not take much for leftist politics to raise its ugly head. 

Political correctness is about control pure and simple. As such the spruikers of it should be viewed and judged with extreme suspicion and many of them I am sure would fail a common decency and freedom test.


I've got grave concern about your wacky ideas on "leftist politics" Jay White.  Some extremely distinguished jurists were amongst those condemning sections of the new so-called anti-terrorism laws as they carry the possibility of curbing free speech.

Alan Jones used  inflammatory and dangerous language as a number of religious leaders have aknowledged including Jeremy Jones of The Australia Israel and Jewish Affairs Council - who would be highly amused at being called a leftie.

Indeed Jone's rantings during the week leading up to the riot could easily fall under the actions of one of John Howard's "lunatics" responsible for the riot.  Each individual currently being arrested for  could be deemed only responsible for their own actions but it's the combined efforts of many who make a riot happen no matter who large or small their role.

Calls for Jones to be held accountable for his inflammatory talk is not about curbing free speech but the opposite. It's to point out that under sedition laws -will some be seen to be exempt, like Jones ,who called for an attack on the social order of the country .

Just as his co-worker Brian Wilshire has been suspended for his disgraceful comments, Jones needs to explain himself . The  Prime Minister should also offer his thoughts on the matter particularly as Jones is his favoured broadcaster.

The sad part of 2GB's  broadcasts is that owner John Singleton is one of the most vocal supporters of multiculturalism and has funded efforts to help refugees in detention centres.



Charge an elite?

Jay,  I don't think we are baying for Mr Jones to be charged under the laws that some of us think are draconian. It is more a belief that this will be an example of what some of our reservations were. That is, these laws were made to target minorities. The government never envisaged that one of their own pin up boys would fall foul of them.

I have to tell you Jay, that after reading a transcript of the broadcast in question I fail to see how Mr Jones has not broken these very laws.

Do you think that if it was a Muslim radio host on a community station and he made the same comments but from a different perspective he would not be facing charges? At the very least the Daily Telegraph would be calling loudly for his head.

Obeying the rules

Michael de Angelos: "No proof is needed that the riots happened with or without Jones' help. He was specifically calling for people to attend and advocated illegal violence. He was inciting action. These aren't my rules."

Michael, hi! I was wondering if you could refer us to any transcript of any broadcast by Alan Jones, or any other announceer with 2GB, advocating "illegal violence" at Cronulla or Maroubra.

Also, how would this contrast with, say, a student protester or radical religious advocate advocating violence?

Also, I was wondering if you could indicate any research that suggests the young people involved in the melee last weekend form either a direct or indirect audience for 2GB or Alan Jones?

I am absolutely certain if you could do that, we could beging a campaign to have 2GB's broadcast license revoked and Alan Jones charged with one of a number of criminal offenses.

But, contrary to your assertion, proof would be needed. In Australia, at least. In Cuba, perhaps not.

Michael de Angelos: "These aren't my rules."

Or mine. But just whose rules are they, exactly?

Rank Hypocrisy over Free Speech in 'Europe'

Nothing more clearly illustrates the Kafkaesque absurdity of the current laws in parts of Europe (and elsewhere) against so called 'holocaust denial' than the hypocritical bleating about Turkey's disgusting and repressive treatment of those who dare mention the Armenian genocide.

I heard the BBC comment today that Turkey may not gain entry to the EC unless it guarantees free speech on matters such as this. Ah Europe... such a bastion of free speech!

In contemporary Europe it seems, historical belief is required to be optional in all cases except one. In that case, strict conformity is obligatory lest one be arrested, incarcerated - and be mentioned by mainstream media only by way of condemnation and villification.

This state of affairs is philosphically, intellectually and morally disgraceful; media that support such outrageous bias are beneath contempt.

This Christmas, let's free ALL those persecuted under thought-control laws - worldwide!

Update from the US

Supporters of Patriot Act Suffer a Stinging Defeat in Senate

In the current climate, free speech is still more important here in the USA. Lessons to be learned.

Free Speech

Who listens to Alan Jones, Michael de Angelos? And at what age are kids immpressionable? You have not answered the questions that C. Parsons has asked of you .

Who Listens?

Kathy, I can assure you that unfortunately a lot of people listen to Alan Jones. I drive a truck for a living and I go to a lot of constructions sites, warehouses and other workplaces and I often hear Mr Jones on the radio at these places.

Free speech in practice

As we approach the tenth anniversary of conservative national government it should be possible to get some perspective on what that has meant for the nation.

Is the country more relaxed and comfortable? Are ordinary Australians better off in real terms? Is their health and education better? Is their tax system simpler and fairer? Do they grasp their social obligations and their use of the national political system any better? Are they, in the broad, more tolerant of those less well off or otherwise "different"? Is it easier than a decade ago to exchange of views about social problems and policy without spite, name-calling and bad faith?

The answer to all these questions is no. The Right Honourable the Prime Minister cannot have it both ways. He is either a leader or a follower. Either way, he and his government bear much responsibility for the current state of the nation. After ten years in office it is really not credible to suggest otherwise. The really worrying thing is that after a decade of practical on-the-job training, the current front bench is the best they have to offer.

The Government is content to dismiss most criticism as ill-informed, scaremongering and the like. Meanwhile, in the absence of in-depth journalism, opinion pieces by Janet Alebrechtsen, Dennis Shanahan, Angela Shanahan and commentators like them are often couched in pejorative terms. The larding of positions with epithets like "whining", "latte set", "bleeding heart", "Howard-hater" and so on serves to irritate while thinly covering up a weak case. Sadly, too often the same cricism can be levelled at critics of the government, in Parliament and elsewhere, including Webdiary.

The task of modern government is not to govern for its supporters, nor just electors or taxpayers: it is to govern for the whole nation, the sensible and the silly, the good and the bad, the well, the ill, the ignorant, the rich and the poor, citizen resident or refugee, the very young and the very old. Perhaps the only way to dispatch this careless, ill-advised government to the backbenches of history is to bore them out office with dry, calm, reasonable, independently sourced argument, so plain, simple and unassailable that even a Terry McCrann can "get it". 

Dissent is not "un-Australian" and I am not a "Howard-hater". I just wish my country was in other wiser, fairer, kinder, more honest hands.

Election vindicates deaths of thousands!!

In one of the most outrageous pieces of propaganda that has spewed from Howard’s mouth, his claim that yesterday’s election in Iraq vindicates the coalition’s decision to go to war has to be the most blatant.

Howard doesn’t seem to realise that most people in the world have slightly longer memories and recall that the reason for the coalition’s decision to go to war was because Saddam had WMDs, a nuclear weapons program, a massive arsenal of chemical weapons, was an immediate threat to Australia and the rest of the world, had links to al Qaeda and had been connected to the events of 9/11.

What would have vindicated Howard’s decision to join the coalition in going to war against Iraq would have been the discovery of the WMDs, the nuclear weapons program, the massive arsenal of chemical weapons, the links to al Qaeda and irrefutable evidence of Saddam’s involvement with 9/11. Tens of thousands of innocent Iraqis dying cannot be vindicated by a day at the polling booths that will end up meaning nothing to them!

Free speech versus the evils of thought control

Michael de Angelos: "If shock jock Alan Jones is as ineffectual as you suggest C.Parsons then one wonders why he's the mouth of choice for the Prime Minister".

With respect, Michael. You made a specific, empirical claim based on an assumption about the radio audience share Alan Jones is supposed to have in the Shire.

You then made another express empirical claim about that audience mediating a call to action to another audience, namely their "impressionable kids". That's what you said. All I have asked you is, do you have any evidence to support either of these claims?

That Alan Jones commands some overwhelming audience in the Shire. And that this was the impetus to Sunday's riot, by virtue of Jones's 2GB audience instructing its children to go out and beat up Lebanese Australians.

The sort of claim you are making goes to the very heart of the discussion here about freedom of speech versus social responsibility.

I mean, had you been listening to Alan Jones's program when he made the supposedly provocative broadcast, would you have taken part in the riot? Or if you were so aroused by Jones's rhetoric, and had a 20 year old son of you own, could you or would you have been able to direct your "impressionable" young adult child to join in a race riot? If no, why do you think others would, solely on the basis of the 2GB radio broadcasts?

This is actually an important question - because one consequence of the 1950s Horror Comic panic I mentioned was that DC and Marvel comics were actually banned in the UK and New Zealand for years.  Well over a decade.

And pretty well all that saved them in the US was the First Amendment provision in the Constitution and a benign ruling of the Supreme Court (as I remember from my reading about the controversy).

The argument in the UK was that Horror Comics caused violence in young people and that the need to curb this sort of violence - and also to protect young people from such excessively lascivious and degrading comics as Mad Magazine and Crypt of Fears - justified a suspension of the publishers' right to free speech.

The proponents of the comic book bans in the USA made a similar case.

And I say it would be a reasonable basis for such a demand if they could actually demonstrate that comic books turned young adults into perverts and thugs. Like 2GB.

I would say, if Alan Jones can - and did - incite a riot, we should ban him for the sake of social cohesion, the welfare of young people, and public order.

And maybe we should ban other people who could, or did do such things. Like, Greenpeace, say.

But I need proof, Michael.  Even in terms of the simple balance of probabilities, if you cannot actually provide proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The first demand you would have to satisfy, I would think, is to show that 2GB radio listeners incited their children to riot last Sunday. Or could do so.

Denise Cook has made plain the standard of proof which would satisfy her.  She said:'..."Alan Jones is a very powerful man". Now that speaks volumes to me. ' 

Even allowing for the obvious tautology of such a statement, merely banning someone from the airwaves because they strike Denise as being "a very powerful man" I would suggest is not a sound philosophical or moral basis for censorship.

It puts me in mind of the Fifth Century BC Athenian practice of ostracism, almost precisely.

I'd need something a little more in keeping with the conventions and standards of our own time. Like, some evidence in support of your claims outlined above. Once you have done that, I'd also like to discuss the term "impressionable" with you.

 Guest Ed Ross : Actually CP, Denise was quoting Bruce Baird unless I read her post incorrectly.

Free Speech Versus The Evils Of Thought control

No, guest Ed Ross, you didn't read my post incorrectly. C Parsons did.


stick to your comix

No proof is needed that the riots happened with or without Jones' help. He was specifically calling for people to attend and advocated illegal violence. He was inciting action. These aren't my rules.

I don't say he or the PM is solely responsible but  they have helped stir up hatred. If the PM is happy to make the claim that all is well in Australia because of his governance, he must accept responsibility for  the bad. Only a coward would do otherwise.

The large Southern suburbs listening audience is a claim of 2GB's advertising sales department, not mine.

Only a coward ?... isn't he brave and true?

Michael you've got me wondering if Danna Vale will send Mr Jones another lovely letter urging him to stay brave and true. Be a brave move!

Now we have Alan Jones and

Now we have Alan Jones and John Howard stirring up our yoof. The new Rolling Stones of a generation. With 2GB and 2UE the sounds of choice. I bet many a teenage girl and boy has their posters in pride of place on the bedroom wall. This is almost to stupid for words.

Gee and here I was thinking the Greenies were in tune with Australian yoof. Perhaps the yoof they are in tune with is the class of 1970? I would think turning up to a Uni protest with the oldies would have little to zero street cred.

The fact is we understand this generation about as much as our parents understood us. Life; the more things change the more they remain the same.

undeserved credibility

Will Howard is concerned that David Irving might get "undeserved credibility".

I agree. No one deserves credibility they don't deserve.

I have a question for Will.

Which of David Irving's books does Will believe is most damaging to Mr Irving's own credibility - and least likely to bestow upon the author the credibility he so clearly doesn't deserve (according to Will)?


David Irving

Mr. Dahrendorf referred to David Irving. The most insightful sources on Irving are by Emory University's Deborah Lipstadt.
Denying the Holocaust and History on Trial: My Day in Court with David Irving document the denial industry of which Mr. Irving is the most infamous representative, and Mr. Irving's undoing in a libel action he himself initiated.

See also Cambridge University historian Richard Evans' account of the Irving libel suit in Britain, Lying About Hitler: History, Holocaust, and the David Irving Trial.

Often forgotten that it was Irving who was attempting to stifle Lipstadt's publication, not the other way around.

The most important point about free speech that comes out of the Irving case, is that authors like Mr. Irving have a right to publish whatever they wish. They do not have the right to have their publications go unchallenged.

Michael de Angelos: "He

Michael de Angelos: "He (Alan Jones) has a huge audience in the area although  his listeners would be older but they would probably be making comments during the week to their impressionable kids."

Hi, Michael. I was wondering if you could give us a 2GB audience breakdown for Sutherland Shire, particularly in relation to Alan Jones's program?

Also, at what age do "kids" stop being "impressionable"?

Would, say, a twenty year old "kid" still be "impressionable"?

I have to say, I don't consider it very probable, your communications model of a 2GB listening audience acting as an efficient indirect medium for communicating with Bra Boys and surfies.

What are we to make of a claim such as that in view of the rioters communicating with each other by cell phone test messaging?

Were they 2GB listeners? Or merely the "impressionable" offspring of 2GB listeners?

On the Fear and Loathing thread you also attacked the Daily Telegraph for stirring up the trouble. Despite the Telegraph stridently editorialising against the SMS text camapaign for a full week before the riots.

Have you resiled from your theory about the Telegraph being the cause of the riots?

In fact, what on earth does being "impressionable" mean in the context of a mass action involving 5,000 mostly adults?

The attempts at explaining this violent episode by blaming it on 2GB and the Telegraph (of all things) puts me in mind of the 1950s hysteria about 'Horror Comics'.

This was a campaign promoted by a bizarre alliance of ultraconservative religious elements in America - and a Communist-led teachers union in the UK!

The main objects of their wrath were DC and Marvel comics which, according to whether you were a right wing American or a Left wing English teacher, either "subverted American youth" or "imposed American values on impressionable English youth". Or both.

All sorts of bizarre outcomes were attributed to Horror Comics.

They stimulated frenzied sexual activity. They were soporifics which sapped the will. They led to violent crime. They led to lazy complacency.

Whenever the anti-comic book brigade were challenged to support their claims with evidence, they shifted tack.

Comic books no longer led "directly" to violent behaviour by "impressionable kids" - instead they contributed to a "climate conducive to violent behaviour indirectly".

And apparently diametrically opposed behaviours depending on which side of the Atlantic they were read.

Okay. We can laugh at such nonsense with the remove of 50 years.

But here we are in 2005 trying to explain something as fraught with complexity as inter-ethnic rivalries and the sort of social mayhem we witnessed last Sunday by blaming it on 2GB.

I mean, 2GB. Are you serious? LOL.

shock jocks

If shock jock Alan Jones is as ineffectual as you suggest C.Parsons then one wonders why he's the mouth of choice for the Prime Minister. Whatever his influence, he is guilty of inciting riot by advocating people turn up on the day and that an element of violence is acceptable. The Daily Telegraph is beneath contempt but then it always is. They kept the matter on the front pages for a week and after Bloody Sunday broke into mock horror at it all and have been salivating over it since.

We now see the result-talk of sectioning off parts of an Australian beach and while all sides attempt to forge peace, gangs and convoys of young men roam the streets looking for revenge. I think this will take a long time to solve.

It's difficult for the right wing to extricate themselves from this mess. While opinion writers proclaim Geoffrey Blainey was correct all along and Jones fan David Flint and Keith Windshuttle chime in that it is all the fault of multiculturalism, John Howard attempts to claims it's just a "few lunatics". It's a wonder the "elites" haven't coped a serve over this.

Meanwhile no-one seems to have noticed that for all Howard's talk of dire enemies at the gate and terrorists about to strike, more people have been injured in Australia as a result of his Sutherland Shire voter's actions than any home grown or foreign terrorist.

A tangled web indeed.

Free speech

Mr. Dahrendorf hits the target with this essay. The most important test for free-speech advocates is when we hear speech that expresses opinions we oppose. Alan Jones comes to mind.

Furthermore, any attempts to suppress speech, even (especially?) from the likes of David Irving, only lend them undeserved credibility and publicity (they can portray themselves as martyrs).

free speech

In light of the dreadful Cronulla events and the continuing aftermath it will be interesting to see how the government handles the issue of free speech. After listening to tapes of 2GB 's Alan Jones during the preceeding week where he urged people to turn up to "protest" and reclaim their beach, and endorsed violence by stating some large Islanders were needed as they would lay in with their fists it can be said he was partly responsible for inciting locals to riot. He has a huge audience in the area although  his listeners would be older but they would probably be making comments during the week to their impressionable kids.

This is a real test for the PM who is yet to comment on his favourite shock jock's role . Nor are we likely to get tame News Ltd journalist to ask him questions about it. Why do we  have these sedition laws then? Are they to be only used selectively when the political message isn't acceptable to those in power?

The tangled web being woven by the PM and his supporters is becoming more complicated by the day.

Alan Jones

Hi Michael,

I also heard excerpts of the Alan Jones tapes on the radio yesterday afternoon.  They were being played to Bruce Baird. The announcer asked Mr Baird  something along the lines of "what do you think of that type of broadcasting, do you think there's an element of incitement to violence in there, what would you say to Alan Jones about that?"  

Bruce Baird made no comment about the tapes and only said  "Alan Jones is a very powerful man".  Now that speaks volumes to me.

free speech

Their rants should be rejected with argument, not with police and prisons.

Precisely. Open debate is also a way of bringing unconscious thought processes  to light - as otherwise, these tend to lurk in the dark, spreading diseases like so many cockroaches.

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