Global Freedom of Speech

By Binderup, Lars | Trames, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Global Freedom of Speech


Binderup, Lars, Trames


1. Introduction

   "If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people
   what they do not want to hear." George Orwell

Rapid globalization is in these years causing people with very different cultural backgrounds to mix on an unprecedented scale. One consequence of this process is that the morality of free speech is back at the top of the agenda in public, political and academic debate. In particular, the growing cultural diversity within the populations of Western liberal democracies due to immigration has led to controversies over the public expression of views that are controversial to the moral sensibilities of members of new immigrant minority cultures. And this phenomenon has been amplified due to the globalization of the media. Controversial publications nowadays quickly spread outside the cultural contexts of their origin leading to an increasing number of international incidents where what is at issue is primarily what ought and what ought not be said or otherwise expressed in the new multicultural and global setting.

The so--called Cartoon Controversy following the publication of 12 Mohammed-cartoons in a Danish newspaper Jyllandsposten was a particularly poignant illustration of this trend, but there is a growing list of similar incidences. Notably the crisis over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses (currently resurfacing following Rushdie's knighthood) and Theo van Gogh's movie Submission about women and Islam leading to his murder at the hands of an Islamic radical and the controversy over the Pope's quoting of a fourteenth century Byzantine emperor on Islam. Many of these incidents have recently involved Muslim religious sensibilities but it is important to keep in mind that offence to other brands of cultural sensibilities have also been the focus of debate in the past--as clearly illustrated by the Christian outrage over the musical by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas Jerry Springer the Opera, Martin Scorsese's film The Last Temptation of Christ and Monty Python's Life of Brian, as well as the outrage among some Sikhs over Gurpreet Bhatti's play Bethzi. It is examples of controversial, allegedly culturally offensive, exercises of free speech such as these, I shall refer to as 'the controversial cases' in the following.

What I ask in the following is: Does globalization--through its tendency to multiculturalise our societies, i.e. to bring together people with different cultural backgrounds both within liberal democracies and on the international scene--provide us with new moral reasons for limiting free expression? In particular, does it justify norms that, in some circumstances at least, proscribe expression of views that 'offend', 'hurt the feelings of' or 'disrespect the beliefs of' members of minority or foreign cultures? Very few political philosophers and commentators nowadays, at least in Western liberal democracies, advocate change to constitutional or international law forbidding the causing of such offence. There have thus been few calls for new legal sanctions over and above the ones already entrenched in law in liberal democracies--i.e. sanctions against incitement to violence and public disorder, racism, personal defamation, disclosure of nationally important or independently legally protected secrets etc. I shall accordingly focus on those who believe that there ought to be, not legal, but moral restrictions on free speech in response to the new multicultural reality.

A case in point are those liberal democratic philosophers (Carens 2006:37, Parekh 2000:316--317, Modood 2006)--I shall label them multiculturalists here--who have invoked moral 'democratic' or 'civic' norms (as opposed to legal norms) in response to the controversies. They make the perfectly valid point that just because one has a legal right to express something it does not mean that one can give expression to it with moral impunity no matter what the view expressed is and no matter what the context of expression is. …

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