Sunday, February 05, 2006

Freedom of speech cuts both ways

The publication of those cartoons has continued to spark protests around the world. In Auckland, seven hundred members of the local Muslim community marched up Queen Street in protest. In London, a similar size protest marched to the Danish embassy holding placards calling for those who insult Islam to be beheaded, butchered and slain. Many - including the Tories - are outraged by this, but they shouldn't be. After all, freedom of speech cuts both ways; you cannot (consistently) insist that people have the right to insult and offend Muslims, but that the latter are not allowed to be insulting and offensive in return.

The placards in London were undoubtedly insulting and offensive - but they did not go beyond the limits of freedom of speech. The opinions expressed are little different to those expressed by pro-death penalty protestors, or those who think that all homosexuals should be killed. And I take exactly the same attitude towards them: while I disagree violently with their position, and will oppose them with every means at my disposal, I cannot question their right to hold or express such views. They're not attacking people, they're not burning buildings, they're not drawing up hit-lists and issuing specific death-threats, and so there is simply no case for suppression. People are allowed to be wrong, and they're allowed to be arseholes - and that applies to the protestors every bit as much as the newspapers.



I really think calling for killings stretches freedom of speech beyond breaking point.

Isn't threatening to kill a crime?

I note the London Police are now launching an investigation:

"· Metropolitan police sources told The Observer that arrests could follow this week after investigations of the behaviour on Friday of some protesters who demanded the 'massacre' of 'those who insult Islam'. They may have breached laws against inciting hatred or terrorism.",,1702682,00.html

This story is rapidly growing into one that seens to cover all bases of the "war on terror".



Posted by Matt : 2/06/2006 03:22:00 AM

I actually thought incitement to murder was a crime.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/06/2006 03:37:00 AM

Keep in mind that in England, even a statement against homosexuality in general or any other abstract group or belief system is enough to warrant a visit by the police for the investigation of a hate crime.

Yes, many of the protesters will be investigated and called in for questioning, but this is par for the course. Prosecutions are unlikely to follow.

Posted by Anonymous : 2/06/2006 05:26:00 AM

Matt: threatening to kill and incitement are crimes - but they require far more specific threats (and against specific, identifiable individuals) than the slogans on display here. I'm not going to pretend that the protest was entirely abstract - they had some people in mind as those who had insulted Islam - but it doesn't meet the legal barrier.

What people in the UK are objecting to are placards which praised the London bombings, or suggested that there would be similar attacks in London and across Europe as a result of. Again, these are offensive and insulting - but still well covered by freedom of speech, however distasteful.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/06/2006 10:53:00 AM


There's legitimate protest, and then there's calls to engage in mass murder.

I will not defend physical violence, or calls to it, against people.

Happy to toot in support of a picket line in front of the Dominion Post though.


Posted by Matt : 2/06/2006 12:03:00 PM

Matt: Oh, I think its absolutely disgusting. But so is holding a placard saying "god says kill fags". And many seem to think that the latter is perfectly permissable...

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/06/2006 12:14:00 PM

> but it doesn't meet the legal barrier

what is the legal barrier?
Maybe it should be brought a little closer because lets say I protest for the main NZ bloggers to be killed (lets say you jordan david and a couple of others because you keep saying rude things about politicians) and I whip a hundred angry people up into a frenzy - surely that is not a good thing?

Which is a little diferent from me saying
"I think you should be tried via the legal system and that the legal system should give you the death penalty"
but similar to
"People should go to random homes and burn all the homosexuals"

Posted by Genius : 2/06/2006 12:24:00 PM

Genius: It's not a good thing, and in your example you'd probably be crossing the line because you're naming or clearly identifying specific individuals. The protestors in London didn't do that - their placards targetted a broad class, "those who insult Islam". If you're looking for a local analogy, consider this: people call for child rapists to be killed all the time.

(And before anyone goes off on a stupid tangent, this isn't about whether there's any comparison between bloggers or people who insult Islam and child rapists - its about whether you're allowed to say that a class of individuals should be killed or otherwise attacked).

There is a clear parallel with hate speech laws here - and it seems hypocritical to say (e.g.) that hate speech is OK when directed at gays, but not OK when directed at Danes or cartoonists or people who offend your religious sensibilities (explicitly contradictory, in the latter case; much anti-gay hate speech is spoken precisely because homosexuality offends people's religious sensibilities). And its worth noting that many of those down in the sewer who are screaming in outrage at these placards would die in a ditch for the right to say exactly the same things about queers. I think that speaks for itself about their commitment to "freedom of speech".

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 2/06/2006 01:01:00 PM

Re: UK muslim placards: Voltaire you're really going out on a limb here. Naturally, I defend your right to do so, but challenge you to re-assess your stance on this issue.

See this article about the placards incl. a charming picture of a young child holding a "Whoever insults a prophet kill him" sign for the context in which these public statements were made.

"against specific, identifiable individuals" - is that really the threshold to which you subscribe? - and is that not actually what has occured here?

It could be argued that the placards recommend a change in the law so that blasphemy should be a capital offence. That would be perfectly legal, and is one way of looking at it. But these statements are in the nature of a threat and not of mere political advocacy. If they are quotes from the Koran or some form of scripture should not be relevant either.

But to say: "they're not... issuing specific death-threats" may be to stretch specific too far. If someone issues a threat of death to anyone who does a specific act then does that not become specific?

At what point would the line be crossed? "If you do x then I will murder you" is what some of the placards are in effect saying. Unfortunately for you x = their own subjective interpretation of your attitude and actions to their beliefs. So the threat of death is specific but the reason or qualification for it may be somewhat vague. But is that any less of a specific death threat? Does that even make the threat worse because a person may not know that the threat is applicable to them.

To publicly advocate a policy of killing members of your own society (in this case citizens of the UK) on the basis of those people acting within the law, feels - feels mind you - as though it has breached the mark of legal sanction. To publicly advocate law change is a different proposition - but that is not what these placards were saying.

Another issue is whether or not in this instance there was a reasonable expectation of the threat being carried out. I'm not so sure it matters as it is the cumulative and continuing effect of these sort of threats that make it more likely that it will be carried out. Repetition and the lack of any sanction for death threats and "massacres" has led to exactly that in the past. The anti-semitic newspaper editor Nazi, Julius Striecher (sp?) and the man who ran the anti-Tutsi radio station in Rwanda (name?) are both examples of war criminals that have been prosecuted. My question is up until the point where the first machete was swung/first Jewish shop smashed were these people who promoted policies of death rightly within their rights? Could it all have been avoided by prosecuting these people before their threats became reality? Their culpability is obvious to me.

The issues are not simple and each instance must be judged in context. After the Theo Van Gough incident in the Netherlands the propensity for a cult's beligerant extremist edges to carry words into action is a very real spectre in the UK. Does tolerating these death threats encourage the action? How specific does the threat have to be?

Posted by Bomber : 2/06/2006 02:03:00 PM

Threatening to kill isn't free speech. Perhaps they could get away with it if they had in small print underneath "I'm just mouthing off - in fact I'm too pussy to actually kill someone", but they didn't. The threat is entirely specific - it's directed against the people involved in publishing those cartoons. The cops should have hauled the lot of them in and charged them. I don't think the fact that the victim of the threats was in a foreign country would be defence.

Posted by Psycho Milt : 2/06/2006 06:59:00 PM

> The protestors in London didn't do that

Some of them probably name the cartoonists - infact I would have thought it was pretty clearly implied. Those that dont I guess get off on a technicality but it's a pretty lame one.

> people call for child rapists to be killed all the time.

Like the above commenter I clearly seperate political advocacy that might result in death from calls that seem to request we do it outside the law.

> many of those who are screaming in outrage at these placards would die in a ditch for the right to say exactly the same things about queers.

I dont know anyone (seriously!) who doesnt oppose both of them... maybe I live a sheltered life?
And are they really the ones screaming?
got any (many) examples to back up that wild generalization?

Posted by Genius : 2/06/2006 09:49:00 PM

Its interesting that publishing the cartoons is not a crimal offence, but threatening to kill is. One is freedom of speech the other may also be freedom of speech in your view, but in my view is less acceptable.

Yet, British newspapers refuse to publish the cartoons, but are happy publishing the placards such as "Whoever insults a prophet kill him"

Posted by Swimming : 2/07/2006 12:03:00 AM