Newspapers in Denmark have recently reprinted the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad which caused controversy and violent protest in 2005 when they were published in Jyllands-Posten. This came about after the arrest on Tuesday of three people on charges of plotting to kill the creator of the cartoon, Kurt Wesergaard. One of the three was later released, but two - both Tunisian citizens who had lived in Denmark for many years - were deported. The newspapers reprinting the cartoon said that they chose to do so in order to take a stand against self-censorship. In other words they wished to show that intimidation could not succeed in silencing them.
This highlights a complex ethical situation in regard of human rights. Hate speech is illegal in much of Europe and in fact in much of the world, and yet free speech is an essential part of any democracy. Are those two things compatible? Where is the border between them?
Certainly I believe I have the right to say what I want about my culture's religion, Christianity. I might even make fun of it, simply for my own amusement, but I would not do that if I thought it would cause serious offence. That's simple courtesy. And some people are more likely to be hurt than others. If I meet your deeply religious grandmother I'm no more going to say something mean about Christ than I am going to tell her that her hat is ugly. I don't think this constitutes any limitation on my freedom of speech.
Legislating against hate speech is something fraught with difficulty, however, because you are really making a law against intent. A swastika in a historian's book is quite different than one painted on a synagogue, or found (reversed) on the facade of a Hindu temple. In fact we do legislate intent all the time; it is the difference between manslaughter and murder, for example. When the intent is to intimidate, harass, or incite violence against a particular group then it becomes, in many places, illegal.
So, the original publication of a cartoon Muhammad with a turban which looked like a bomb deeply offended a large number of Muslims around the world. Perhaps Islamic religious leaders are partly to blame for inciting the violence which followed, causing around a hundred deaths. For that reason it was discourteous and probably also unwise. Was the publication necessary to advance free speech? I don't personally see how. Was it intended to intimidate or incite violence against the Muslim population? I'm not sure, but it can't have helped.
Now, when a possible plot is discovered against the cartoonist, newspapers react to what they see as an attempt to intimidate them into restricting what they will publish. They show their defiance by once again provoking violence. Is this an effective blow for freedom of the press? What does it really achieve? What are the costs in violent reprisals and in increasing racial tensions in Europe?
Personally I'm strongly against any legal limits on freedom of speech. I think the laws which already exist to prohibit threatening behaviour, incitement to violence, and so on should be enough. But although there should be no legal sanction, I think that individuals or media which choose to say things which are offensive, provocative, or likely to increase divisions and hatred within the community are acting in a very unethical way.
Using free speech to cause harm is something which should only be done if there's a very good reason. There should be no other way. Abusing this most necessary privilege endangers this most basic of our human rights.
Please take a look at Gideon's comment here, and the contrast between these cartoons and Rushdie's book on the one hand and Piss Christ on the other. When I wrote this I was trying to think of good examples to bring a range of worthwhile and non-worthwhile free speech cases to the table, but wasn't able to do so.