Mon, Dec 19, 2005 - Page 9 News List

No legitimate reasons for limiting free speech

By Ralf Dahrendorf

Not so long ago, there was jubilation that the free world and its values had prevailed in the Cold War. When the Communist empire collapsed, some even announced that the victory of liberty and democracy implied the "end of history."

But history never bowed out; at most, it only took a decade-long intermission, with its next act heralded by the terrorist attacks in the US in September 2001. And here the plot has thickened. Instead of rejoicing in the liberal order, those of us who have the pleasure of living under it have had to struggle to keep it intact and strong.

Since Sept. 11, more and more freedoms are being restricted in the name of defending liberty. New visa requirements and other obstacles to travel, more intimate data collected by governments, and the presence of video cameras everywhere -- at once benign and intrusive -- remind one more of George Orwell's Big Brother than of John Stuart Mill's On Liberty.

Britain is not the only country where ancient rights of habeas corpus, of the inviolability of the person, are to be restricted by new legislation that, for example, extends the permissible length of detention without charge. Now, even the fundamental right of a liberal order, free speech, is under pressure.

Some restrictions are understandable legacies of the past, but must nevertheless be re-examined. In Austria, the historian David Irving was arrested recently because he has denied that the Holocaust happened. In the prison library, however, Irving found two of the books he had written that had led to his arrest! In Berlin, there is much concern about the possible desecration of the Holocaust Memorial, although its creator, the American architect Peter Eisenmann, takes a relaxed view of what is said and done about his creation.

Other restrictions of free speech have more recent triggers. In the Netherlands, the shock that arose over the killing of the film maker Theo van Gogh runs deep and has led to demands for legislation against hate speech. In Britain, proposed legislation concerning incitement to religious hatred and terrorism has led to emotional parliamentary debates -- and to doubts about the liberal credentials of Prime Minister Tony Blair's government.

Can such demands for restricting free speech ever be legitimate? The first and principled answer must surely be no. All freedoms can be abused by liberty's enemies, but in the case of speech, the risk posed by restricting freedom is surely greater.

Moreover, the benefits of tolerating free speech outweigh the harm of abusing it. Indeed, the Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen has demonstrated that free speech even helps mitigate seemingly natural catastrophes like famines, because it reveals the ways in which a few haves exploit the many have-nots. As the watchdog organization Transparency International reminds us, corruption exposed is in many cases corruption prevented.

These practical consequences are above and beyond the liberating effect of allowing the "marketplace of ideas," rather than state authorities, to judge people's expressed views.

Are there really no exceptions to this rule? The classic example comes to mind of the man who shouts "Fire!" in a crowded theater. In the resulting panic, people may be hurt or even killed. Nowadays, we worry about incitement -- using free speech to provoke violence. I do not know how many Islamic leaders preach murder and mayhem in mosques and help recruit suicide bombers from among their congregants; but even if it is only a handful, they pose a question that must be answered.

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