Ten journalists (and two police officers) were murdered in France this week. The journalists ‘crime’ it seems was to write satire for a magazine which published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in a jibe. This magazine has done the same with other groups and iconic figures, their offices were petrol bombed in 2011 in an extremist attack and now they have been attacked again. This sadly isn’t the first such instance of aggressive Islamism deciding that no-one can dare speak lowly of their prophet and have gone on the rampage ending people’s lives. We had the Rushdie affair when a head of state decided that Mr Rushdie must die and a bounty be placed on his head; we had the Danish cartoons when lynch mobs, fascists and bullies decided to round on a country and a small magazine for a years old cartoon strip. We had the campaign against the Liberal Democrat candidate Maajid Nawaz who dared to tweet pictures which he himself didn’t find offensive, and now we have this.
Mehdi Hassan was right that atheists do have a sense of the sacred. He used examples such as the poppy in England which we use to remember all those fallen in battle, a more apt example for me would be the freedom to express ourselves. This is a sacred right which I believe everyone is entitled to. Even if something deeply offends me such as not believing gay people have the right to marry, I accept their opinion and engage in discourse knowing that we are both free to think and feel as we see fit. This right to me is as sacred as anything to anyone else and it is time we defended it with nonviolent civil action. Neither during the Danish Cartoons or the attacks on Maajid Nawaz did many publications or television channels re-publish the cartoons in solidarity. It is time for all of us to print these cartoons, put them on our twitter and Facebook pages, time for newspapers and television channels to defend their fellow professionals and their own profession from the relentless attack which is at hand. As Edmund Burke argued all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.
For me the pronouncements made by people like ben Franklin that “Without freedom of thought there can be no such thing as wisdom and no such thing as public liberty without freedom of speech” are so beautiful that to defend them with utmost gumption becomes not just a duty but a pleasure. Indeed the right to mock those o so sacred figures is important, as writers like Christopher Hitchens and David Aaronovitch have argued the need to mock the sacred is vital. It brings the ‘sacred’ into question and lowers them down to a point where we don’t become afraid to question the sacred and opens up free inquiry and free thought. Indeed it can become necessary to openly mock divine figures.
The only times speech can be limited are four instances. Firstly as Oliver Wendell Holmes famously stated you don’t have the right to shout fire in a crowded theatre when there is not one. This means that we do not have the right to say something which we know to be false. This doesn’t mean we can restrict speech from someone who may believe something which is untrue despite overwhelming evidence that goes against their point of view. The second restriction can be derived from J.S Mill’s most famous work On Liberty in which he expounds his vision of a free society. This limitation is the speech that will direct violence against people, such as race hate; this does not cover things like mocking religious figures or issuing insulting statements. Thirdly and finally signs such as no blacks, no dogs and no Irish obviously cannot be allowed due to the fact that if you deny someone access to an establishment you are destroying their freedom of expression. The last one is to say something about someone which one cannot substantiate which would slander them. These four limitations are clear and in some ways substantial.
What has happened today and in the past is simply not acceptable. Free speech is precious and it needs to be defended at all costs. Without the freedom of speech society becomes corrupted, scared and it stands still. Without the right to poke fun at ideas how can we ever progress and live in a civilised society. We haven’t defended our rights in the past, now is the time to change regardless of the consequences of terrorism from radical mad men whom almost no-one agrees with. If we cower and hide as in the past, they win and the next time this issue comes up again we shall go through the same cycle. The idea that don’t offend them and they won’t attack is one of the most foul in modern politics. It is time for us to be proud of our right to be proud of our tradition, the tradition of saying what we want.
By Sam Mace, Junior Writer for Daily Political View.