With reference to Britain but also relevant to the recent references by Goh being made to responsible media in Singapore. The following is taken from Identity Crisis
As more people define themselves by their spiritual beliefs, there are controversial plans to introduce legislation to curb incitement to religious hatred. Philip Pullman asks if the law will distinguish between a rational analysis of theology and a call for violence, while Monica Ali, Philip Hensher and Salman Rushdie consider the threat to free speech
Philip Pullman, Monica Ali, Philip Hensher and Salman Rushdie
Saturday November 19, 2005
Responsible free speech?
The Home Officer Minister initially in charge of the religious hatred legislation currently proceeding through Parliament has said that "wordsmiths" must write and speak with "responsibility". Free speech must be used responsibly. Everyone must understand that. Who decides if speech is being used responsibly? Why, the authorities. Home Office ministers. The rule of law. The authorities in the United States will decide whether protest is a responsible use of free speech. So will the authorities in Iran, who have their own views on responsibility. The necrocracy of North Korea would find absolutely nothing to quarrel with in the notion that speech must be exercised responsibly. Nor would any Chinese regime of the past 50 years. Responsibility is in the eye of the government, the church, the Roi Soleil, the Spanish Inquisition and, no doubt, Ivan the Terrible.
Free speech, we generally accept, is subject to reasonable restriction. Criminal libel or racist abuse, for instance, are not generally permitted. The case for "responsible" exercise of free speech, however, is not talking about reasonable restriction; it is different from a parallel exercise taking place at the same time, to draw the lines of "reasonable restriction" more tightly. What talk of "responsibility" does is to insist on restrictions that are universally appropriate. A statement may be perfectly legal, and yet - from this point of view - deplorable because "irresponsible".
It is absolutely clear that, in most of these cases, the case for "responsible" free speech is not being made to those who use their power or authority to damage the speechless and the powerless. There might be a case for saying that a powerful newspaper, a government minister, ministers of the church, should not use their voices irresponsibly against those who have no power of response. For instance, it might justifiably be said that the British newspaper which published a story, on no evidence at all, that asylum seekers were killing and eating wild swans was abusing its authority.
Similarly, we might deplore, on the grounds of "responsibility", the lie spread, without any medical evidence, by the Roman Catholic church in Africa, that the use of condoms is useless against the transmission of HIV. Such bodies, perhaps, do have a duty to consider the weight of their voices, and exercise their right of free speech responsibly. But that is not what is meant here. In almost all cases, what is being addressed is the free and reckless criticism of governments, of religions, of authority of all kinds. The argument that individuals have, individually, a duty to exercise free speech "responsibly" is not, despite claims, a strengthening of the status of free speech. It is an attack on the idea itself.
The progress of free speech has been advanced over the centuries, not just by calm, rational argument, but by excess and irresponsibility. Those who, with increasing noise, are insisting that free speech can only be permitted when it is used "responsibly", are prescribing across the board a range of expression and a range of agreed opinions. That is not free speech at all. If we want to hang on to the free speech of individuals, we must personally insist on continuing the noble and long history of irresponsibility.
Extracts from essays in Free Expression is No Offence, published by English Pen and Penguin on December 1
Role of The Media in Singapore?