L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

03 April 2009 Blog Home : April 2009 : Permalink

Free Speech Means Defending the Vile

There are a lot of people who claim to support free speech but tend to qualify it with weasel words about "harming children" or "offending minorities" or other blather which boils down to not supporting free speech at all. Now is the point where the usual Free Speech column inserts a disclaimer but this one doesn't. Supporting Free Speech means you don't want to prohibit people saying things like:
etc. (I think that covers most of the grievance groups but I'll welcome additions).

No government ought to stop anyone from standing up on street corners or creating pages on the Internet saying any of the above. Of course no government ought mandate any of these as education or pass laws in favour of any (hello Iran) but any government that believes in liberty for its citizens will not attempt to censor people who say these things or anything else.

The right, as someone (Christopher Hitchens?) said, to free speech is the right to be insulted. And of course the right to insult back. This is so basic that it worries me when apparently sensible people such as the chap who writes Letters From A Tory get it wrong. LFAT descibes the following with approval:

I still think the state is justified in intervening in the activities of individuals in some circumstances.  Yesterday’s news reports of a far-right group being banned in Germany after allegedly organising activities that promoted racist and Nazi ideologies to children raises some difficult questions that appear to expose the dangers of laissez-faire government.

The German interior ministry stepped in after they found evidence that the Homeland-Faithful German Youth (HDJ) was teaching children as young as six that foreigners and Jews were a threat to the “German nation”.  Police also raided the offices and houses of the group’s leaders in connection with the ban.  The HDJ said it was a “youth group for environment, community and homeland” but at its special holiday camps, children were taught elements of “racial ideology”, including the “purity of blood” and “the continuation of the German race”, with the aim of forming a neo-Nazi elite, according to the government.

LFAT defends this censorship on the grounds that it protects the children:

While I believe that free speech is crucial, children do not have the same ability to distinguish between different viewpoints that free speech fosters and are therefore vulnerable to some extent - hence the need for some protection.

Part of the problem here is that LFAC is showing the sorts of micro-managing paternalistic instincts that experience shows us is the start of a slippery slope. Yes governments have some responsibility for the children of their nation but only in totalitarian regimes should we expect governments to concern themselves with the mental welfare of every single child. The same error is what leads people to expect 100% perfection from social workers and so on. (Question: is it worse to indoctrinate a child or to kill him gradually over a period of months?) Children are indeed vulnerable to adults and Western European paternalist governments try to protect every single one of the little darlings with indifferent success. One wonders whether the police time and money spent on the HDJ would not have been better spent investigating (say) forced marriages of German teenagers of turkish origin - and yes that is deliberately provocative.

Another part of the problem is that we know that "martyrdom" is a great way to increase recuitment. Especially in today's Internet world, being shut down by the government is almost a badge of honour to help you recruit other dissatisfied individuals. Furthermore, as this response points out, by publicly banning these sorts of thing you drive it underground where you can't keep track of who is indoctrinating whom, how widespread it is and so on.

But those are just the direct effects. There is also, as Ezra Levant illustrates in his book, there is also the issue that once you get into this sort of censorship the government ends up providing more publicity for the extremists and may even end up paying people to incite extremism by writing objectionable material. In fact I'd suggest that anyone who wants to know where things will end up once the government gets involved read the book or at the least watch the Youtube links of Mr Levant's appearance on the Michael Coren show (Mr Levant for those who don't know initially got in trouble for publishing the Mohammed Cartoons that upset so many religious bigots).

Finally such censorship also gives encouragement to the really non-liberal governments. The ones who recently managed to get the UN describe defamation of religion as a human rights violation for example.