Drawing a line through free speech

1st September 2017

Drawing a line through free speech

If any single question has come to define debate around freedom of speech today – in South Africa and globally – this would be it. Where previous generations might have pushed for ever-expanding frontiers of public discourse, the growing tendency nowadays is to fortify those frontiers. The lines, in many instances, are becoming tighter, and the spaces they demarcate are narrowing.

Unsurprisingly, this is gaudily on display in the world’s closed societies. Whether the issue is internet control in China, the flogging of a blogger in Saudi Arabia, or harassment of the media in countries as diverse as Azerbaijan, Cuba and Vietnam, authoritarian governments are showing a renewed determination to keep their populations on a short leash.

More noteworthy is the growing challenge to free speech in democratic societies, including those with long traditions of civil liberties. All too frequently, these are not the actions of eccentric, populist governments enjoying a brief turn at the helm; rather, they are emerging from eminently ‘progressive’ politicians and activists – just the sort who, in past generations, would have defended it.

Case in point: earlier this month, renowned evolutionary biologist and celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins, was scheduled to hold a discussion on his latest book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist, as a fundraiser for KPFA, a radio-station based in Berkeley, California. Describing itself as being committed to cultural diversity and pluralistic debate, to fostering understanding among people and to promoting ‘freedom of the press and (serving) as a forum for various viewpoints’, its website suggests an intellectually stimulating line-up, a natural match for Dawkins.

At face value, anyway. Last month, the station announced that it was cancelling the event. The reason? Some years back, Dawkins had voiced some harsh words about Islam – ‘Islam is the greatest force for evil in the world today’, for example. Unpalatable to believers certainly, but hardly surprising or out of character for someone who authored a book entitled The God Delusion, and who, in the Washington Post in 2010, described the Catholic Church as a ‘profiteering, woman-fearing, guilt-gorging, truth-hating, child-raping institution’.   

For KPFA, this was unacceptable. ‘We had booked this event based entirely on his excellent new book on science,’ it wrote, ‘when we didn’t know he had offended and hurt – in his tweets and other comments on Islam – so many people. KPFA does not endorse hurtful speech. While KPFA emphatically supports serious free speech, we do not support abusive speech.’

This explanation is telling. Because some speech can be ‘hurtful’ or ‘abusive’, it is not to be entertained, even by an institution explicitly committed to intellectual pluralism. Indeed, what is to be supported is ‘serious’ free speech, although it’s not clear how this is distinct from ‘unserious’ free speech. A subjective, flexible, moveable line, perhaps? Even more than this, Dawkins’ event was cancelled as a result of something he had said that was not the topic of his talk. As a scientist – a very ‘serious’ one – his work is respected even by those who take issue with his views on religion. But his views on (a specific) religion ruled a discussion of his ‘excellent new book on science’ impossible. In KPFA’s worldview, a very tight line was drawn indeed!

Dawkins’ case was not an isolated one. The UK’s National Union of Students has an explicit policy of ‘no-platforming’ those with ‘racist or fascist views’. In February this year, an event at the University of California in Berkeley featuring rightist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was cancelled after being violently disrupted by protestors. Shortly thereafter, conservative commentator Ann Coulter, was forced to cancel a talk at the same university after her campus sponsors withdrew, citing the pervasive hostile atmosphere they were facing. In Canada, publisher Ezra Levant and journalist Mark Steyn spent years battling charges brought before that country’s Human Rights Commission following articles in McClean’s magazine about the supposed impact of Muslim immigration on Western societies.

And in South Africa, the University of Cape Town last year rescinded an invitation by the institution’s Academic Freedom Committee to Flemming Rose, the Danish journalist elevated to global prominence in 2005 when his publication printed a number of cartoons of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. In explaining why Rose would be an unacceptable choice to present the lecture, UCT Vice Chancellor Max Price cited concerns that his presence might provoke conflict, compromise security and that it might ‘retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus’.  

This is increasingly what ‘the line’ means today; not snaking from censors’ offices, and not claiming to defend the security of the state or traditional public morality, but, rather, one presided over as much by institutions outside government – such as universities or human rights bodies – as by governments themselves.

Drawing this line reflects some fundamentally positive impulses. The world is changing. Migration has pushed together peoples from vastly different cultures. Attitudes towards morality and identity are in flux. Shrinking the borders of what is acceptable to say is, surely, a reasonable price for protecting the vulnerable and forestalling conflict? Or is it?

This view goes beyond concerns about words sparking imminent physical harm. It even stretches concerns about ‘hate speech’ (this being a sometimes nebulous concept). Today’s line is not limited to the anticipation of imminent or directly attributable harm that may arise from words. It does not require that actual people are singled out for attack. It aims to control narratives. It attempts to limit criticism of ideas, seeing these as proxies for more nefarious agendas. Thus, Dawkins’s condemning Islam is not be engaged as a criticism of a system of religious thought, but rather an attenuated attack on Muslims, who – as an underprivileged minority in Western societies – deserve protection.

(For his part, Dawkins contends that his views on Islam are merely part of his overall anti-theism, and that part of this is motivated by what he sees as the oppression of flesh-and-blood Muslims by their faith. Ditto all other faiths.)

The upshot of this is that whole areas of debate become painfully difficult, if not impossible. Prof Greg Craven, Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, notes with concern the narrowing scope for public conversation in democratic societies:
Arguments in support of climate change, same-sex marriage or defending Islam against imputations of cultural links with terrorism are just fine. The point here is not whether these arguments are right or wrong, but that they are permissible. Correspondingly, there is a whole series of other arguments – again right or wrong – that are off limits: any doubting of climate change; opposition to same-sex marriage; linking elements of Islam and jihad.

These are just some of the issues which touch on deeply held moral convictions and cultural mores, or policy matters with profound implications for societies’ futures. If they are to be resolved, they need to be aired in all their transgressive complexity. It’s difficult to imagine how sensitive and complicated issues can be processed, and broadly acceptable solutions imagined, if they cannot be vented and properly interrogated. Indeed, debate around unpopular views has historically been a driver of human progress and development.

Free speech, after all, is a foundation of democracy, a condition for participation.

Speech is not free if it is restricted to an approved set of beliefs, whether these represent an existing consensus or an emerging aspiration. Its very premise is that it is the unpopular and marginalised views that require protection. This is a matter of deep principle. Leftist icon Noam Chomsky put it best: ‘Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.’

There’s no doubt this means facing unpleasant and, for many, unwelcome perspectives, and, sometimes, vicious and bigoted things. But this is the price tag that comes with freedom, a price that makes democratic participation and progress possible. Protecting the right to air even the vilest of speech is the best guarantee that should the occasion arise, the right to air the best can be protected. The American writer Henry Louis Mencken once presciently argued: ‘The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.’

‘Where do we draw the line?’ As narrowly and sparingly as possible is what the answer ought to be, for an overzealous application of ‘the line’ is constricting our democratic practices. Failing that, we might well be compelled to surrender any pretence of faith in democracy and freedom.

Written by Terence Corrigan, a policy fellow at the IRR, a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.