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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
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.