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Why freedom of speech is vital

Limiting my freedom to speak denies my most fundamental rights. It also denies you the opportunity to hear what I might say.

Summary

Presented on 18 January 2019. Posted 17 February 2019.

In December 2018 I was asked by the University of Exeter Debating Society to participate in a debate. The extracts below from the invitation email explain the background and format:

“The motion for debate is that ‘This House Regrets the growing scepticism of freedom of speech.

This is intended to be a debate about the current state of freedom of speech in UK law, and whether freedom of speech should be expanded or restricted. Additionally, if there are any suggestions to the motion which you believe would make for a better debate, I am more than happy to listen to them.

I have seen you advocating for freedom of speech, and believe that due to your insight into religion, religious extremism, and the where the limits of free speech should be drawn, and believe for that reason that you would make an excellent speaker on this topic.

The debate format is as follows:

Why I agreed to participate

Logistically, participation was going to be quite inconvenient. My schedule had me in Manchester. Allowing for the train journey from Manchester to Exeter, debating, staying overnight, and travelling back to Manchester, I would need to sacrifice 24 hours of my time, in addition to the preparation and planning time.

I agreed to do it because all my life I have been a passionate supporter of freedom of speech. That is why I am a member of, amongst others: Amnesty International, Defend Free Speech Campaign, English PEN, Index on Censorship, Islam & Liberty Network, Liberty, and Network for a Free Society .

The lead speakers

The poster for the debate is copied below with the permission of the Debating Society.

Speaking for the motion

Simon and I first met just over two years ago when we also spoke on behalf of freedom of speech at Durham University. See my page “Political correctness harms us by stifling political debate.”

Speaking against the motion

All of the speakers were invited because of their interest in the subject. However it should be noted that two of the four speakers (Chris Allen and I) are Muslims, illustrating the growing diversity of Britain.

The debate was not recorded. However I have reproduced below my five minute opening speech. I have added the sub-headings for ease of reading.

My opening speech at Exeter University

Standing in front of you is 165 kg of organic chemicals, made into bones and flesh. What makes me into a person, what makes me Mohammed Amin?

My freedom is at stake

It is my memories, and my thoughts. Apart from the right to life, the most fundamental right I have is my freedom to think.

But what use is my freedom to think, if I cannot share my thoughts with you. That is why freedom of speech is so critical.

Limiting my freedom of speech attacks my most fundamental human rights.

Your freedom is also at stake

Limiting my freedom of speech also attacks your human rights, because it denies you the right to hear my thoughts.

That is the essential, moral, reason why freedom of speech is vital for any society that claims to be free, any society that claims to respect the rights of man.

Society benefits from freedom of speech

However, there is also an instrumental reason why freedom of speech is vital for society.

Without freedom of speech, wrong ideas could never be challenged.

Without freedom of speech, we would still believe that the sun goes around the earth.

Without freedom of speech, we would still believe that creation took place in seven days just over 4,000 years ago.

Without freedom of speech, there would be no progress of any kind.

Freedom of speech is imperilled even in liberal democracies

It’s easy to criticise the restrictions on freedom of speech in other countries.

In many Muslim majority countries, such as Indonesia and Saudi Arabia, it is a criminal offence to call yourself an atheist and to deny the existence of God.

We like to think we are above such things in countries such as the UK and the USA.

The Larry Summers case

The USA is proud of the first amendment to its constitution.

However, while the US government still protects freedom of speech, American society has become increasingly intolerant.

It may be true, or it may be false, that far more men than women have the  exceptional mathematical skills needed to be a top-level physicist.

However, for even floating the idea, the President of Harvard University, Larry Summers, was hounded out of his job.

Having seen what happened to him, how many people do you think are likely to be brave enough to research whether his idea is right?

Treating Larry Summers like that, treating certain research questions as off-limits, makes the entire human race intellectually poorer.

The Nigel Biggar case

I do not know anyone today who thinks that the British Empire was 100% good, with no negative aspects for colonial subjects.

However, there seems to be an enforced orthodoxy that the British Empire was 100% evil.

For daring to suggest that the British Empire was not all bad, Professor Nigel Biggar at Oxford University, somebody I know personally, was absolutely vilified with people trying to hound him out of his job.

Some legal limits are necessary

Of course, there are always some legal limitations on freedom of speech. It is a crime to cry “fire” in a crowded cinema to create a panic.

However, in Britain and even in America, social attitudes are now jeopardising the most important human right there is, after the right to life itself.

Thank you.

The European Convention on Human Rights

I have copied below article 10 of the ECHR. It is in two parts, illustrating how the ECHR balances the need for freedom of speech and the reasons why a democratic society may need to have some limitations. For example incitement to murder is a criminal offense in most countries.

ECHR Article 10 — Freedom of expression

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This Article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

 

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