“I do not agree with a single thing you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
It’s a phrase widely attributed to Voltaire and often used to characterize the concept of free speech.
It was a freedom not easily won, as the French and American Revolutions showed.
(800 authors, printers and book dealers were incarcerated in the Bastille in Paris when it was stormed in 1789!)
Back then men like John Stuart Mill argued that without this basic freedom there can be no progress in science, law or politics; he believed that free discussion was necessary to prevent the “deep slumber of a decided opinion”. Ideas like this forever changed the face of the western world.
Authors and philosophers took huge personal risks to propagate new ideas in the face of an oppressive Church and State authority.
As recent events have showed, those days are not past.
Once it was Christian orthodoxy that made freedom of speech an anathema; the CatholicChurch, we must remember, banned books written by Galileo, Hume, Locke and Voltaire. Jews and unorthodox Christians found sanctuary under Islamic rulers.
Today, ironically, the Church that has reignited the debate about freedom of speech is the fundamental sect of Islam.
The right to freedom of speech is recognized as a human right under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice”.
But in fact freedom of speech is not absolute in any country in the world and is subject to limitation through slander, libel and obscenity laws.
Do you, personally, agree with the right to freedom of expression?
You do? Would you fight to the death, for example, for Osama bin Laden’s right to call the US the Great Satan?
Would you struggle to have Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’ shelved in your local library?
Would you defend the right of the Westboro Baptist Church to preach hate politics?
Article 19 goes on to say that the exercise of FOP rights carries “special duties and responsibilities” and may “therefore be subject to certain restrictions.” So in effect you have the right to free speech except when someone tells you that you haven’t.
But when don’t we have that right?
According to the Freedom Forum Organization, society at large recognizes limits on the freedom of speech when it conflicts with other values or rights. Most limitations follow the “offense principle”; for example in the case of pornography, religious belief or hate speech.
So freedom of expression is a complex ideal.
Despite what we like to think, even the West does not have a ‘free press.’
The media routinely suppresses information or stifles the diversity of voices inherent in true freedom of speech – whisper the name Fox News, for example.
The guiding principle in most western media is: “no money, no voice”.
And as the Julian Assange case shows, freedom of expression is dependent on the notion of national security – but who decides the difference between national security and political self interest?
In effect we tend to believe that freedom of expression is a fact when it is a malleable and ongoing argument, a freedom that is constantly under threat.
The debate about freedom of speech was brought to the fore in Australia recently. We currently have a woman prime minister, Julia Gillard, of whom I am not particularly fond.
However, she has recently been subject to the most vile abuse, being criticized for her appearance and her dress sense – when are male politicians subject to such scrutiny?
But our political ‘debate’ sank to a new low when a controversial Australian shock jock, Alan Jones, triggered public outrage after saying Julia ‘s father – who passed away unexpectedly last month – “died of shame”.
“To think that he had a daughter who told lies every time she stood for parliament,” he said.
Ms Gillard, who delivered a tearful address to parliament following her beloved father’s death, has refused to take a call from Mr Jones after he offered to apologize.
And last year, our leader of opposition – a certain Mr Tony Abbott – stood on stage attacking her climate change policies in front of crude signs saying “Ditch the Witch” and referred to her as a rival male politician’s “bitch”.
Even sexism is free speech. But as Barack Obama suggested, Ms Gillard chose to refute such abuse with more free speech.
Her 15 minute dressing down became a YouTube sensation. It’s worth listening to some of it.
So where do you stand on free speech? On Thursday I paid tribute to Sherry Jones’ incredibly courageous stand against ignorant fundamentalists who stopped publication of her book ‘The Jewel of Medina’ in the US.
But as you can see here it’s a complex debate and I can assure you, it’s not going away anytime soon.
I’m playing devil’s advocate here; but please comment and tell me what you think.
And I’m going to exercise my freedom of expression! I’m letting you know you can now view my European best seller ANASTASIA, right here on the new SLIDESHARE.