Is Freedom of Speech an Absolute or Relative Right?
A Constitutional Right?
I remember when it was a popular justification to claim, "I'll say what I like. It's a free country". This has rather fallen out of fashion, to be replaced, in UK, with "I'm entitled to state my opinion", and in US, with "I'm only exercising my (Constitutional) right to free speech". An interesting word, 'right'. We'll come back to that later.
Americans are fond of appealing to the Constitution. In Britain we don't do this because there's no written constitution, no single document or point of reference. The British Constitution is usually defined to be 'The Rule of Law and the Sovereignty of Parliament'. Law, of course, tends to be proscriptive (don't do x,y,z). You'll never find a prescriptive law that reads 'say whatever you like'. In practice, in UK, only a court of law can decide if someone has acted illegally in, for example, inciting racial hatred.
Where I'm living now, in Doha, nobody claims any such right or entitlement to free speech. Here, as in much of the world, you can think what you like but some opinions, voiced in the wrong place, could result in detention or deportment. Similarly, the Internet here is heavily censored and even personal blogs can be blocked. Qatar is not Saudi; but it's not the West either.
Personally, Qatar's restriction on free speech doesn't particularly bother me. Why not? Because I'm here to work, not to reform the country, and experiencing how different cultures organise themselves is one of the main reasons for my travelling lifestyle. Hubbing and blogging as Paraglider gives me a little anonymity, but would afford me no real protection if I were prone to writing hubs like, for example, Sir Dent's 'The Birth of Palestine'. Sir Dent (I'm sure he won't mind me saying this) if he lived in the Middle East, couldn't expect to remain there for long while producing pro-Israeli literature. And this brings me to the main point of all this preamble: is absolute freedom of speech invariably a good thing? Let's have a quick straw poll.
Should Freedom of Speech be an Absolute Right?
What About the Law?
Something many people don't realise is that you are allowed to break the law. It's illegal, but that's merely by definition. You are allowed to break the law but then the officers of the law are allowed, duty bound in fact, to apprehend you and turn you over to the courts.. This partly explains why proscriptive law works. If the law says 'don't do x' and you are seen doing it, it's a clear case of law-breaking. But prescriptive law isn't so easy. If you're seen not doing something, your immediate defence is "I was just about to do it".
When it comes to free speech, the UK position is that you're allowed to say anything in general unless, specifically, you're not. For example, specifically, you are not allowed to incite racial hatred, under the terms of the Race Relations Act.
In the US, it's more complicated, because of the Constitution. There, you're allowed to say anything in general unless, specifically, you're not, but then you can appeal to your Constitutional 'right'. The waters get muddy here.
Rt. Hon. Enoch Powell, MP
What are Rights?
When I was about 20 and a student, there was a politician we loved to hate. His name was Enoch Powell, one of the champions of the Conservative right wing. Though I didn't care for his politics, and still don't, I always had a sneaking admiration for the man. He had a formidable intellect and was one of the best debaters in the House. I read his autobiography and was impressed with what he had to say about constitutional rights. His position was - if something is a right, then the State must defend it, by force if necessary. Thus, the right to shelter: the State is obliged to house the homeless (if they demand shelter). Or, the State is obliged to provide fresh drinking water. Basic provisional rights such as these are not problematical. But rights to act or speak are less straightforward. Logically, if I have the right of free speech, even if I speak offensively, the State must provide police protection to allow me to continue to offend. Taken to the limits, the state must protect me even when I speak against the State. Powell's view was that the State should be extremely cautious in extending rights that could end up in conflict with the law. This appears now to be the case in the US.
Free Speech and Political Correctness
Political Correctness was not around in Powell's day, at least not by any such name. There was also very little, if any, legislation along the lines of 'don't be offensive'. Recently. however, this is where the battle lines are drawn. Someone says or writes something that is offensive to a religious or cultural group. Members of the group complain. The writer bemoans political correctness and appeals to the right of free speech. The oft-repeated cycle is not edifying..
Maybe it would be better if there were less protective legislation, but also no 'right' of free speech either. That is, if the whole field of communication were removed from the legal domain (except inciting criminality). In UK, where there is no 'right' of free speech, people speak freely without it. It's simply unnecessary. Such deregulation would make individuals responsible for any reactions to their words, as they would no longer be able to hide behind a right.
I don't expect this to be a popular remark, but in some respects I think that the US Constitution, which was a great force for progress for a very long time, is now becoming a ball and chain, as it is too firmly tied to a time and an intellectual landscape that have passed away.
Now, just out of interest, let's round off by reconducting exactly the same poll.