The Freedom of Speech vs. the Responsibility of Freedom

There are many arguments and opinions abuzz on the social media networks, some radical, many shocked and sad. I can only speak for the ones I am exposed to, but these seem to fall within two camps - The Freedom of Speech vs. The Responsibility of Freedom.

I watched the news yesterday. I watched and I watched in disillusion as to the actions carried out in Paris shocked me to my very core. Perhaps it was my love of Paris, my love of journalism or my love of political satire. No - it was the attack on perhaps one of the most important human rights democracy is founded, built and sustained upon - freedom of speech and expression. Liberty. As a citizen of a free country, a novice writer and a European citizen, I like many millions of others feel deeply affected.

This blog does not take an opinion on the political identity of the group responsible for this horrific attack, rather it looks at the discussions online detailing freedom and speech and liberty.

The vigils across the world, the #JeSuisCharlie hashtag (from many countries, denominations and cultures) and the response from the Muslim community including The British Muslim Council are reflective of the general mood I am seeing - when did a utility to expression become a weapon of arms?

There are many arguments and opinions abuzz on the social media networks, some radical, many shocked and sad. I can only speak for the ones I am exposed to, but these seem to fall within two camps - The Freedom of Speech vs. The Responsibility of Freedom.

Freedom of Speech: As Voltaire Said

"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it."

George Washington noted that

"If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter."

Alan Dershowitz stated

"The threat or fear of violence should not become an excuse or justification for restricting freedom of speech."

I cannot help but agree with the positioning and viewpoint of these authors. Unfortunately I feel the reality for delivering these rights in a polarising world will continue to be increasingly dangerous, complicated and intertwined. Charlie Hebdo poked fun at Presidents, Popes and Feminism too. You are free to believe what you like, I am free to express the reaction I like to that - including laughter and sarcasm. As Noam Chomsky once said,

"If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all."

The Responsibility of Freedom: the very fact that we have un-censored freedom of speech in Europe and many other countries around the world comes with the burden not to abuse that freedom by being deliverability hateful or offensive.

Whilst I understand and sympathise with the second argument, I must stand with the first. Like many rights afforded to me as a British national, these freedoms can be quickly eroded if they are not protected. I do not believe in curtailing the views of anyone, even if it is not something I am endeared to hear. The problem I see with the argument is that one person's version of offensive is very different to another. The fact that these subjective opinions can and should be shared at will is one of the foundations of democracy. Self-censorship is often employed. This is perhaps the 20th draft of this blog in the attempt to articulate what I am empathetically trying to convey as neither an expert in Human Rights, Freedom of Speech or as a professional journalist. But self-censorship is a personal choice situated within the fundamental right to express yourself within the confines of your national laws.

In today's connected world - from an idealistic viewpoint - freedom of speech should lead to freedom of opinion which should lead to a public forum (especially online and on social media) of debate across all views and opinions. By creating such forums, you too are welcome to pick up your laptop/pen/phone and state your own opinion in response. Or you have the choice not to read, listen to or digest that point of view - but everyone should have the right to express it. Freedom of expression should deliver increased tolerance and diversity.

Unfortunately, as we know throughout history, this is not a universally held viewpoint and information is now transmitted to many nations and cultures across the world who do not enjoy or have the culture of freedom of speech or expression. The ease with which we can access the worlds opinion makes this a fascinating time to live in. It also makes it dangerous as we saw in Paris yesterday. As Mike Harris noted in The Independent today

"In a globalised world, where ideas can be distributed from Paris to Fallujah in real-time, we can no longer protect people from ideas they do not like, even if we wanted to[...] There is no way way you can avoid offending those who wish to develop a global caliphate."

In a publishing capacity, editors may choose to shape the voice of their publications however they see fit and this often includes self-censorship. This ability should be extended to anyone including non-professional publishers like bloggers such as myself. On BBC Radio 4 this morning, The Independent editor, Amol Rajan defended his right not to republish the cartoon, as B.Z in Berlin have done, saying their decision to create their own cartoon for their readers, was for them the right one.

"Every instinct you have as an editor is to publish and be damned. You don't like the idea of self-censorship. But as an editor, you have got to balance principle with pragmatism and I felt yesterday evening a few different conflicting principles. I felt a duty to readers, I felt a duty to the dead, I felt a duty to journalism and I also felt a duty to my staff, and I think it would have been to much of a risk to unilaterally decide in Britain to be the only newspaper to reprint the cartoon. So one has self-censored in a way I feel very uncomfortable with, it's an incredibly difficult decision to make."

This is the role of editorial control - that sits within the liberty to express themselves however they like.

As Robin Lustig said on this very website yesterday

"Charlie Hebdo is often offensive, deliberately provocative and frequently vulgar. That is its point - and that is the point of a free society. The kind of freedom I value includes the freedom to be all those things, as well as the freedom to protest against it, peacefully and within the law." Orwell so succinctly noted "If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear."

I leave this post by sharing some of the support shown by the journalistic, art and illustrator community yesterday.

Dave Brown for The Independent, UK

Lucile Clerc

LECTRR, cartoonist, Germany

Rob Tornoe, cartoonist, USA

James Walmesley, illustrator

David Pope, political cartoonist for The Canberra Times, Australia

Jean Jullien, French graphic designer


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