Celebration of Human Rights 2012 – Article 19
A Humanist contribution to a Celebration of the Declaration of Human Rights at University Campus Suffolk, Ipswich, 11th December 2012, organised by the local UN Association.
Suffolk Humanists & Secularists hosted the event and chose Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Perhaps the most well known quote about free speech is “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, which has been attributed to Voltaire but was actually written by his biographer, Evelyn Beatrice Hall, paraphrasing him. It neatly summarises the idea that freedom of speech is worthy of vigorous defence, even when you hate what’s being said.
I was keen to celebrate Article 19 as I value free expression very highly, as do most humanists and secularists. Those who know me won’t be surprised to hear that I frequently disagree with people. I’ve always done it. My school reports made reference to it. It’s never seemed to me that there was anything wrong with disagreement; quite the contrary. It’s how you learn, how you challenge your own and other people’s ideas, how you develop them. My exasperated mother once threatened to burn my books because they provided fuel for my arguments. If she’d carried out her threat, she’d have been following a centuries-old tradition of book-burning in reaction to dissent by religious and political authorities. It still happens today. One of the most recent examples is the public destruction of Salman Rushdie’s book The Satanic Verses by Bradford Muslims in January 1989. Ironically, the Bradford Muslims didn’t seem to have bothered reading Rushdie’s book before setting fire to it. They were told that it was blasphemous, and that was enough. What was worse was that Rushdie had to go into hiding because the late Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a death fatwa against him.
At least the Bradford book-burners knew about the book, which most British people, including me, didn’t bother to read either. In many parts of the world, repressive regimes have ensured that thousands of people are kept in ignorance about books considered subversive, or anything they don’t like. Many Chinese still don’t know what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989, when several hundred civilians, mainly students, were shot dead by the army, ending weeks of a peaceful pro-democracy protest. The Chinese government, which has just appointed a new leader, maintains careful control of its media. The new Great Wall of China is the Great Firewall, keeping its censors busy blocking access to foreign websites.
It’s impossible to talk about free expression without reference to John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’, published in 1859. In his handy little book, ‘Free Speech – a very short introduction’ (highly recommended, by the way), Open University philosopher Nigel Warburton writes,
“In this classic discussion of the limits of individual freedom in a civilised society Mill defends the view that extensive freedom of speech is a precondition of not just for individual happiness, but for a flourishing society. Without free expression humankind may be robbed of ideas that may otherwise have contributed to its development. Preserving freedom of speech maximises the chance of truth emerging from its collision with error and half-truth. It also invigorates the beliefs of those who would otherwise be at risk of holding views as dead dogma.”
In the first chapter of his book, Mill sets out his “harm principle” as the only reason to prevent freedom of expression. He wrote, “… the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not sufficient warrant.”
Causing harm would include such examples as the one famously given by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who served as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1902 to 1932. He said that freedom of speech should not include the freedom to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre when there is none. Other examples would include the deliberate disclosure of state secrets when that might endanger national security (something that Wikipedia’s Julian Assange seems to regard as unimportant) or the publication of child pornography. Deliberately publishing or broadcasting malicious untruths about individuals or groups of people in a campaign of harassment – currently in the news because of the Leveson Enquiry – is another example, though there are legal powers to constrain such actions, including the law of libel.
Causing offence is not the same as causing harm, yet there’s been a worrying tendency of late for the easily offended, mainly religious groups or organisations, to demand the suppression of anything that they deem offensive. According to a report released last week, eight out of 45 European countries have blasphemy laws on their books. They are Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Malta, the Netherlands and Poland. Our blasphemy law was scrapped in 2008. The Netherlands and Ireland are considering abolition and Denmark’s fifty year old law has never been used. In other parts of the world, things are far more serious. In Pakistan, for example, it only takes an accusation of blasphemy, often because of a grudge against a family member or neighbour, to incite a riot. Rimsha Masih, probably only 14 at the time, was charged with burning pages of the Koran in August then granted bail in September after a Muslim cleric was detained on suspicion of planting evidence to stir up resentment against Christians. A 22-year-old Christian Pakistani youth, who was accused of burning a copy of the Koran, died while in police custody last Sunday, in mysterious circumstances. It’s said that he was probably mentally ill and was tortured by a neighbour who allegedly caught him burning the Koran. A Christian woman, Asia Bibi, who was sentenced to death in 2010 on blasphemy charges, is on death row.
Yesterday, Human Rights Day, the International Humanist and Ethical Union released a report that highlighted a sharp rise in arrests for “blasphemy” this year. Matt Cherry, the report’s editor, says, “Across the world the reactionary impulse to punish new ideas, or in some cases the merest expression of disbelief, recurs again and again. We even have a case in Tunisia of a journalist arrested for daring to criticize a proposed blasphemy law!” The IHEU’s Vice-President Andrew Copson has written that representing 56 member states, mainly Muslim-majority countries, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has spent the last few years pushing for an international “defamation of religion” law at the United Nations. To begin with it was about protecting Islam alone from criticism or “insult”, but when other UN Member States didn’t like this the OIC broadened the concept of “defamation of religion” to include other religions, persisting oblivious to the UN Declaration’s Article 19.
Nigel Warburton, who I mentioned earlier, introduced me to a new expression, the “heckler’s veto”, which is the notion that “if someone in your potential audience is likely to be offended by what you have to say you should not be permitted to speak, or at least have the decency not to.” This was brought to mind by an observation made by someone who read what I’m saying tonight. He emailed, “You lay into Muslims a bit,” and suggested that this might annoy some. It’s true that I have focussed on Muslims a bit, but it’s hard to avoid doing so when so many cases of so-called “blasphemy” involve them. Yet some Muslims claim their right to free speech, and have been denied it. In March 2009, as soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan paraded through Luton, seven Muslim men chanted “Go to hell!” and waved placards that said “Butchers of Basra” and “Baby killers”. The subsequent judgement at Luton Magistrates’ Court was that they had “overstepped the mark”, and that their conduct had gone “beyond reasonable legitimate protest.” They were convicted of using threatening, abusive or insulting words likely to cause harassment, alarm of distress. They lost their High Court appeal, based on their right to free expression, and the Daily Mail (predictably) hailed the judgement as “At last, a victory for the rights of the majority!” George Orwell wrote that “Freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear,” but it seems that some members of the judiciary think that freedom is only permissible if no one is offended.
Despite the wealth of information in print, on TV, and on the Internet, new ideas and movements are being suppressed all over the world by organisations that feel threatened by them. Article 19 is as important now as it’s ever been. As Baroness Helena Kennedy QC has said, “Free speech is one of the core values in a democracy and it should be championed with a vengeance.”
The event was organised by Charles Croydon of the UN Association, Ipswich & District Branch, and by Denis Johnston and Sue Hewlett from Suffolk Humanists & Secularists. It was attended by the Mayor of Ipswich, Cllr Mary Blake. Other speakers were Jane Dow (The Perspective of the Ageless Wisdom), Stephen Broadhurst (Amnesty International), Richard Togher (The Bahá’í Community), Sanjaya Martin Spettigue (Follower of Sri Chimnoy, a form of Hinduism), and Bishop Jeremy (didn’t catch his surname) from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Ipswich.