Freedom of speech is a subject I am seeing a lot these days. I am not sure if this is because it is more in the news or if I am more sensitive to the subject after listening to Christopher Hitchens‘ speech.
That it wold be in the news more often fits with my impression that we are feeling secure enough to value our human rights more. I remember the sociologists explaining the (relative) lack of protest against the curtailing of rights in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. They explained that in times of general insecurity and war, people are willing to accept giving up some rights to have more peace of mind. I believe the increasing visibility and importance given to human rights issues these days shows that we believe we can defend ourselves without giving up our rights. We have a sense of being in control.
I recently listened to the RSA debate on free speech and I think it is possible to address the concerns about racists while still respecting the right to free speech. There is a belief by some that allowing complete free speech allows racists, among others, to say anything everywhere and I disagree.
Your right to free speech is not an obligation for me to listen and even less of an obligation for me to give you a platform. In other words, just because you have the right to speak your beliefs doesn’t mean I have to provide the pulpit.
Insults are not opinions or beliefs. Hate speech direct at someone is a verbal attack. Repeated derogatory remarks are harassment. Discrimination is a crime. Free speech is not a right to deny anyone their rights.
My favourite moment of the debate was the audience member’s comment on the question “Do racists have a right to be heard?” He cited the protest against the performance by a ballerina that was a member of the British National Party as an example of the subject. It made me wonder if the protesters saw the irony of the situation. Their wanting to exclude the BNP member is discriminating against someone because of their beliefs.