“I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” ..Voltaire

September 23, 2012

In 1957 a British educationalist Sir John Wolfenden wrote:

“ The function of the civil law as we see it, is to preserve public order and decency, to protect the citizen from what is offensive or injurious, and to provide sufficient safeguards against exploitation and corruption of others, particularly those who are especially  vulnerable because they are young, weak in body or mind, inexperienced or in a state of special, official, or economic dependence.

The emphasis here is on the preservation of public order to protect the vulnerable within society with the civil law.  Therefore, it remains a fundamental principle when considering freedom of speech within a modern democracy, that public order necessarily imposes limits.   These exist because we are social beings that are connected.  Social networks, internet, media and global bodies unite us in shared frameworks that allow us to view each other’s values, beliefs and behaviours.  So it is within these connections that the principles of harm and offense can be tested by unrestrained speech.

The harm principle states that the actions of individuals should only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals (John Stuart Mill 1859).  Thus the point at which direct harm will be triggered is the first boundary of free speech.

The offense principle maintains that preventing shock, disgust, or revulsion is always a morally relevant reason for legal prohibitions as it may lead to direct harm. (Joel Feinberg 1985).  Thus the point at which a morally relevant threshold for something offensive is reached constitutes a second boundary of free speech.

The video that caused widespread offense throughout the Muslim world the globe over breached the boundary of free speech because it overstepped the moral threshold that requires that things are not said in ways that cause or inflame failure of public order.  The moral responsibility for the reception of the video’s content therefore rests with the creator/sponsors/producers of it and cannot be shielded by the notion of democratic free speech, particularly when they clearly knew it was going to breach the offense boundary.  In this case the offense escalated into violent rioting and murder [direct harm] which was a foreseeable consequence.

I think saying “I disagree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” gives the impression that a democracy gives you the freedom to say what you like even if it causes harm or offence.  This is nonsense because the consequences of unrestrained speech affect public order and are rightly limited by law.  This is why legal systems and society at large will override freedom of speech in the interests of national security, judicial due process and personal safety.  Therefore, freedom of speech does not mean you can say or do objectionable things without proper consideration and accommodation of those that may be offended, harmed or affected.  It requires responsibility.   Double standards, selectivity and irresponsibility are just some of the injustices witnessed in western democratic notions of free speech, hence the violence we have seen in the Muslim world.


One comment

  1. Reblogged this on tw1itteratti.

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