I have been burdened recently in writing this article; each time I get it finished, something else hits me, usually from the media that I think needs to be included – this morning I finally post it, completed, but in the knowledge that it will never be truly finished. The subject is the perennial question regarding Freedom of Speech – I find myself wavering between the support of absolute freedom with a need for some restrictions. Let me explain.
Two weeks ago, a film maker produced a short film that most of us have never, and will never see. Apparently, the film portrays the prophet Mohammed in offensive guises, as a “womaniser, buffoon, ruthless killer and child molester”. It is against Islamic law to have any depiction of Mohammed, let alone one so insulting; it is an absolute taboo in the Muslim world.
The movie appears to have been backed by hardcore anti-Islamic groups in US that posted trailers up on YouTube in July. The authorities ignored this low budget project in the United States, but after Egyptian television aired segments of it, violent protests erupted on the streets of Cairo against western targets and then spread further afield to Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan. It resulted in social unrest, destruction and death.
Should there be freedom to make and circulate a film that has the potential to cause major global offense?
Following the outbursts across North Africa, a French satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo, poured fuel on the fire by producing a set of cartoons based on the Muslim world’s reactions to the film. The editor asks why they should be allowed to mock hard-line Catholic observance but not extreme Islamic belief. The news clip contains his interview.
The publication was a primary factor in increased civil unrest, demonstrations moved into European cities, and more extreme rioting was directed at American targets, resulting in twenty people being killed outside the American Embassy by security personnel in two Pakistani cities.
Should there be freedom to publish images that are likely to disturb a delicate global balance?
Last week a Conservative minister on his bicycle was prevented by two police officers from using the main exit from Downing Street. He was told to use the pedestrian gate instead. His reaction, for which he has subsequently apologised, was to hurl abuse and insult at the officers. As an excuse he stated that “it had been the end of a long and frustrating day”.
Should an individual be free to let off steam even if it is against another person?
John Terry, the ex-captain of the England football team, is in the dock again today; this time at the Football Association. The charge against him of using racist and offensive language will not go away. This time, it appears that the cost of his actions is his future as an England footballer.
Should anyone be free to express themselves in a personal and insulting fashion, even in the heat of a situation?
Some limitations of a person’s freedom are laid down in law, whilst others can be found in the ethical codes that most of us try to live by; making choices for good rather than bad. Perhaps boundaries need to be imposed because people are generally pretty poor at self censorship and control. The more acute a situation, the less able we seem to be to control what we do and say.
Before we act or speak, do we need to take into account individual or group sensitivities whilst also addressing the local and global social perspective? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then limitations to freedom of speech are needed, because we have proven, as in the situations above, that we are incapable of self-limitation.
I’d be interested in your thoughts.