Wednesday, 31 October 2012

On freedom of speech

William Connolley asks in a comment to my post on abortion
Are you going to allow the mental anguish of millions of wacko muslims to be a reason for banning films they don't like?
My answer is that any ban would be ultra vires, but I wouldn't if I could.

I think the law goes too far already in restricting free speech.  I agree with the 'Reform Section 5' campaign - "Nobody has the right not to be insulted or offended" - to amend Section 5 of the Public Order Act.  (This is the Section in relation to which John Terry was unsuccessfully prosecuted.)  I think it reasonable for the law to prohibit verbal bullying - monkey chants from football crowds for example - but not to attempt to enforce good manners.  Not everything which is undesirable should be illegal.

I'm reminded of an incident between Glenn McGrath, bowling for Australia, and Ramnaresh Sarwan, batting for the West Indies in a team captained by the star batsman Brian Lara.  McGrath had been talking to Sarwan a lot, apparently trying to wind him up - Sarwan was thought to be vulnerable to this sort of distraction.  Eventually, an exchange something like this took place:
McGrath: What does Brian Lara's dick taste like
Sarwan: I don't know, ask your wife
McGrath: If you ever fucking mention my wife again, I'll fucking rip your fucking throat out 
Outrageous behaviour by McGrath?  Well, he had recently found out that his wife's cancer had recurred (she died five years later).  Heartless by Sarwan?  Well, there's no reason to think that he knew about the cancer.  Homophobic?  No, probably not, but you could read it that way if you wanted.  It seems to me that the authorities were wise to make no public intervention - the players sorted it out.

But I digress: William C was asking about film censorship, not verbal insults.  Well, as a practical matter we should not ban films because people report being offended by them, because that would give general licence to get any film banned. How about banning visual depictions of the prophet Muhammad? - that seems to be something which causes genuine anguish to some Muslims.  If we were going to do that, should we not equally ban all visual depictions of people or animals, if they offend religious sensibilities? My understanding is that the hadiths cited in support of the proscription do indeed apply to all such depictions (5268-71 here, 646-7 here, 447-50 here.)  Evidently we cannot cater for all religious sensibilities without banning almost everything: I prefer to keep the films and give the religious the opportunity to demonstrate their fortitude.

There is one restriction I would countenance, which would be a ban on the representation of falsehood as truth.  So you could make a film about a fictional character - call it Life of Brian - and say what you want about him.  If you chose to make a film about a real character you could either represent it as a work of fiction, or restrict yourself to a narrative having at least some support in the historical record, except where the record is silent.  One would want the courts to err on the side of permissiveness.

If mental anguish is not a reason to restrict insults, or films, why should it be a reason to restrict abortions?  First,I didn't say it should; my main point was that campaigners against restrictions on abortion should recognize that it does cause real distress.  Second, I give reduced weight to the essentially arbitrary distress caused by offence against religious doctrine - arbitrary because the distress could be abolished merely by changing the doctrine.  Whereas the anguish felt by opponents of abortion is, I think, a consequence of an instinctive not a learnt feeling that a fetus is a person.


  1. > First,I didn't say it should...

    True, you certainly didn't say it directly. You prefixed it with "If". But I took that as an indication that you took the idea seriously. You certainly don't reject it. Whereas in the case of films, you do reject it as an idea (well, you state that you wouldn't do it).

    > If mental anguish is not a reason to restrict insults, or films, why should it be a reason to restrict abortions?

    I don't think you've provided an answer to that question.

  2. The "If..." paragraph wasn't about restricting abortions.