Free speech, with the edges taken off

Saturday's rally in the rain for free expression was a damp squib.

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.

Incitement covers everything from slagging off religious worshippers to giving cranky sermons that attack the values of the West. The silly Islamic cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri was jailed for seven years for ‘incitement to murder and threatening behaviour with intent to stir up racial hatred’ - in other words, not for anything he did, but for what he said (see Abu Hamza: imprisoned for talking rubbish, by Brendan O’Neill). When the authorities view speech itself as potentially toxic, and people as fickle and easily coaxed into being hateful or violent, then pretty much all speech can be redefined as incitement. The spreading out of incitement has been one of the biggest attacks on free speech in recent years - which made it depressing indeed to watch speakers at a free speech rally play the incitement card.

Another of the speakers who doesn’t really believe in free speech, if his past record is anything to go by, was Peter Tatchell, the human and gay rights activist. Tatchell lambasted the left for giving up on free speech - but only two years ago he spearheaded one of the more brazen police crackdowns on speech in recent years. In 2004, Tatchell’s Stop Murder Music campaign targeted Jamaican dancehall artists who sing homophobic songs that incite violence or murder. Accusing the likes of Buju Banton, Beenie Man and Vybz Kartel of calling for violence against gays and lesbians, Tatchell demanded that their music be banned, their concerts called off, and for the singers to be outlawed from the UK. He got what he wanted. On the basis of dossiers of evidence compiled by Tatchell, the police arrested and questioned Beenie Man and cancelled concerts up and down the country.

Yet here was Tatchell defending free speech as a ‘universal, humanitarian right’. His earlier attack on homophobic songs was further evidence that incitement is being redefined to cover all sorts of dodgy or offensive material. Tatchell claimed that the lyrics of Buju, Beenie and others - which include lines such as ‘Rude bwoy no promote no nasty man, dem haffi dead’ - incited fans to attack and kill gays. So you can be incited not only by the words or procurement of someone you know or someone you hear giving a speech, but also by the words floating out of your CD player at home or from the speakers at a disco.

The notion that such songs can incite individuals to commit violent acts is based on the idea that some of those who listen to dancehall are so ignorant that they might pick up the nearest blunt instrument and go out gay-bashing after listening to a bit of Buju. Like much of the incitement debate, it is informed by the idea that the audience - that’s all of us - are easily incited, easily led, easily made into monsters upon hearing the words of some cranky singer, cleric or racist. That’s the thinking behind bans on the BNP and Islamists, as well as Jamaican singers. Like the government itself, Tatchell has campaigned against certain kinds of speech on the shaky basis that he is protecting society from its own worst instincts and excesses.

Saturday’s rally reminded me of the dangers of defining free speech legalistically. Some seemed to see freedom of speech as something that the authorities must protect and promote, when to my mind freedom of speech means the authorities butting out of our conversations and correspondence, and all of us having the right to say, write, think and hear what we want without state intervention. At one stage Tatchell called on Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair to protect people from the ‘intimidation’ of religious fundamentalists. Five minutes later the organisers announced, to loud boos, that a protester’s placard had been confiscated by the cops because it reproduced one of those silly Danish cartoons. But perhaps the police were simply protecting Muslims from the ‘intimidation’ of their secular critics? If you give the police an inch of moral authority on the free speech issue, they will take a mile of liberties. That’s the cops for you.

Part of the problem is that many of the protesters seemed to view the threat to free speech as coming from religious cranks. Placards said ‘All religion is anti-human’ and ‘Blasphemy is a victimless crime’, and one elderly man told me: ‘If I want to criticise Islam, a radical Muslim threatens to behead me. That is unacceptable.’ Yes it is. Religious worthies have always stood in the way of free speech, seeking to protect their patch by appealing to blasphemy laws. But totalitarians on the fringes of society do not have the power to impose restrictions on speech - unless we allow them to. It is the authorities that bring in laws and codes on what we can and cannot say.

If anything, the enemy of free speech today is less totalitarianism than anti-totalitarianism, the idea that strong beliefs or words are necessarily problematic. It is not radical Islamists’ criticisms of Western ideas about democracy and liberty that are the problem, but rather the West’s own doubt about democracy and liberty. So when Lord Falconer says the government wishes to clamp down on those who attack ‘the values of the West’ - by which he means a handful of slightly touched Islamic clerics - he only exposes his own weak and transparent attachment to those values.

The irony is that by pointing the finger at religious fundamentalists, and calling on the government or the police to protect us from their intimidation or threats, some on the rally contributed to the very fearful climate that means free speech can be undermined today. Freedom of speech is not something that can be defined or provided by the state; it is something that we must win for ourselves, by having the guts and gumption to stand up for what we believe in and to face down arguments we find offensive. If it’s a quiet life you want, then free speech probably isn’t for you.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

(1) March for Free Expression

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