It is a strange rally for free speech where the star speaker announces that he doesn’t really believe in free speech.
On grey, drizzly Saturday, around 250 protesters - or 600 according to the organisers; 190 according to the police - colonised a corner of a wet Trafalgar Square to defend free expression. (It was tourists and pigeons as usual in the other three corners.) Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, the only mainstream politician in attendance, said we should uphold the principle of free speech while recognising that it comes with conditions attached. Free speech does not mean having the right gratuitously to offend others, he said. That came as news to some in the crowd. Max, describing himself as a ‘thirtysomething humanist’, told me: ‘Free speech has to be an absolute. If there are limits, especially limits set by a politician, then it’s no longer free speech. It is something else.’
This was a rally for that something else. It started life as a blog, set up by a right-leaning libertarian and a socialist in the wake of the Danish cartoon controversies. Shocked by the suggestion that it’s bad to have a pop at religions, these bloggers declared that ‘the free exchange of ideas depends on freedom of expression and this includes the right to criticise and mock’ (1). They invited others to support this statement of principle and to defend it in Trafalgar Square. Moderate Muslims rubbed shoulders with radical queers; there were old-left secularists and young right libertarians; opponents of the Iraq war lined up with supporters of the war, including a man in a Stetson (perhaps a tribute to Dubya?) who shouted ‘move on, please!’ whenever a speaker said something critical about Iraq.
Overexcitedly, the organisers celebrated this meeting of minds as an expression of diversity. Generously, it was a mixed bag; ungenerously, it was a motley crue. It was the Blogosphere made flesh. The fact that the demo was talked up as a big thing beforehand, as the world got hot under the collar about the Danish cartoons, but ended up being a pretty damp squib reveals a truth about the free speech debate: it shows that free speech is seen as a hot issue, one of the most important of our times, but also that confusion reigns about why it matters and how far it should go.
Evan Harris wasn’t alone in standing up only for free-ish speech. Other speakers drew the line at inciting racial or religious hatred. The category of incitement becomes flabbier all the time. Legally, it used to refer to one individual’s incitement of another to commit a crime; it was based on there being a direct relationship and a joint criminal enterprise between two or more dodgy characters. Then it was broadened to cover incitement to public disorder and was used to restrict the right to protest or make potentially inflammatory speeches. Now, under New Labour’s Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, it will become a crime to incite hatred, and hatred, so far as I know, is not even a crime (yet). The government is also making an offence of ‘indirect incitement’ to commit acts of terrorism. So you can incite someone to do something bad without even realising you’re doing it. You can be an unwitting inciter.