Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Free speech, Egypt, and a note on fire alarms in theatres

Good news from Egypt where, in the words of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information:

In a court ruling restoring hope in the hearts of all defenders of freedom of opinion and expression in Egypt and the world, the Administrative Judicial Court issued a sentence today in Case No. 15575 / 61 , which was brought by Judge Abdul Fattah Murad calling for banning the 51 websites on the Internet in Egypt. The court rejected the lawsuit, and emphasized the support for freedom of expression and not compromising the freedom of these websites as long as these sites do not harm the beliefs or public order.
It would be better without the final caveat, but is a welcome development in the country I suspect might lead the Islamic world out of darkness.

In failing to defend the English blogger Lionheart, I was not failing to defend his right to free speech. Incitement to violence is not a matter of free speech and the frequently quoted example that it would not be acceptable to shout "Fire" in a crowded theatre lets me explain why.

The example itself is simplistic. It is perfectly acceptable to whisper "fire" to your neighbour in a theatre. With questions of freedom of speech, however, volume is rarely the issue; attempts to silence people are absolute. Those who do not wish Mohammed to be criticised are unconcerned by the volume, or the privacy, in which the criticism takes place. I established through dialogue with Ismaeel of the Muslim Action Committee that he would not be happy for the Danish Cartoons to be displayed in a private exhibition. They should not be displayed under any circumstances, ever, in his view.

And incitement to violence can be non-verbal. A nod from a crime boss has sent people to their grave. Setting off a smoke grenade under your seat in a crowded theatre would be unacceptable. I know I'm straining the metaphor, but the point is that attempts to restrict speech are absolute, not relative, whereas uttering the word "fire" is only bad under some circumstances. Incitement to violence is a crime if violence is a foreseeable outcome (unlike in the case of a small child who talks of "killing " someone). In all cases, it is the violence that is the issue, not the speech.

Lionheart is concerned about the same issues other, less abrasive, commentators are: no-go areas, grooming and sexual abuse of young white girls by Asian men, these have been raised by churchmen and MPs. By failing to address these incendiary problems properly the mainstream establishment has left the way open for the BNP (which Lionheart seems to support).

I do support the right of the BNP to say whatever they wish. I do not support the right of anyone to incite or organise violence. I think Lionheart's posts, some of them, are incitement. But he has not, from the available evidence, ever been involved with the direct organisation of violence. If those who are were treated less kindly by the press, who were aware of the reporting restrictions and their reason when they wrote about the "Lyrical Terrorist", then perhaps Lionheart would have taken a softer line.

Certainly fewer people would want to listen to him.

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