It is not clear to me how it is possible to live up to the latest UN pronouncement on free speech. You can read a Reuters' Report on this here.
If all those who speak, write, express their views have to respect all religious sensitivities, then what can anyone say? Some religious group is likely to be offended by almost any expression of a view. Does the UN want to stop us watching The Life of Brian, Jerry Springer the Opera, etc? Will atheists have to keep quiet about their beliefs for fear of offending religious sensitivities? Watch out Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and co. And how does all this square with the US First Amendment?
I will be speaking at the launch of the London base for the Center for Inquiry at Conway Hall on Friday 18th January 2008. More information about the event is here. My topic will be "No Platform Arguments About Free Speech".
Peter Tatchell debates issues about free speech and its appropriate limits with the President of the Oxford Union, Luke Tryl (who just gave a platform to David Irving and Nick Griffin) and Brendan O'Neill from Edge. You can watch this half-hour debate here (should open in a new window). Tatchell makes a clear and reasonable case for limits to free speech in certain circumstances. Oddly Tryl seems to feel he has an obligation to give a platform to extremists.
There is an excellent 54-minute webcast interview here (requires RealPlayer) with Harvard Professor T.M. Scanlon based on his collection of essays The Difficulty of Tolerance. This site also provides a complete transcript divided into six sections. Persevere beyond the initial biographical questions as it gets much better, particularly when he begins to talk about the nature of Philosophy and why he thinks it can be difficult (roughly, he believes that Philosophical questions usually arise from tensions within a subject area but that Philosophy steps outside that subject area to try and answer them, and that this requires a certain kind of analysis, as well as creativity and perseverance).
The interview has at its core, (from about 20 minutes into the webcast) a discussion of Freedom of Expression. Scanlon first got engaged with Philosophy when he realised a tension between the undesirability of people expressing misleading views and the value of freedom of speech. Scanlon believes in the value of an open society, that is one in which the legitimacy of political institutions in part depends on the possibility of citizens objecting to or protesting about the activities of the state.
In his earlier writing on freedom of expression he emphasized autonomy and how freedom of expression acknowledged autonomy. He mentions several legitimate restrictions on freedom of speech that he has come to accept such as not being permitted to describe how to make nerve gas at home in your sink, and the possible legitimacy of intervening to stop free communication between conspirators. He does, nevertheless defend the idea that a price of having an open society (which is what we want and need) is that we should tolerate advocacy of views to which many of us object.
In passing he makes the interesting point that we are far more likely to accept as appropriate a government that curtails free expression relating to false advertising, than one that censors political views, on the grounds that governments are likely to be more neutral and objective about the former than the latter.
In a recent polemic in the Guardian Roy Hattersley attacks John Stuart Mill's idea from his On Liberty (1859) that in a civilized society adults should be free to make their own mistakes, and that this is better than having the State or anyone else coerce them 'for their own good' - provided, of course, that no one else is harmed (rather than merely offended) by their actions (Mill's so-called Harm Principle). Hattersley believes that Mill is
'comfortingly worthy but out of date'
Hattersley seems to sneer at Mill using the male pronoun in his writing to refer to men and women despite having written on women's rights (in his Subjection of Women); this is a bizarre and anachronistic criticism. I wonder if Hattersley knows of any writers in the nineteenth century who used ' he or she' instead of 'he'.
He quotes Mill's idea that
'all errors which (a man) is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.'
Then he dismisses this with a rhetorical 'Only cranks believe that now.' This is a blatant use of the devious technique known as 'poisoning the well'. That aside, his examples which are supposed to show that Mill was wrong are that if people generally believed in this principle we wouldn't prohibit recreational drugs and wouldn't have laws requiring travellers in the back seats of cars to wear seat belts.
Let's take these one at a time. It is not obvious that only cranks believe that recreational drugs should be legally available to adults (particularly to adults who are well-informed about the risks). Consistent application of Hattersley's line might demand that we ban all kinds of risky activities, such as playing rugby or rock-climbing. As a matter of fact Hattersley would probably be happy to go down this route - I remember interviewing him about boxing for an Open University television programme (course A103) when he took the paternalistic line and defended the idea of a ban on the sport.
Mill, in his discussion of drunkenness in the section 'Applications' (p.167 of the Penguin edition of On Liberty) makes the point that although someone should be free to get drunk as long as this doesn't harm anyone else, his principle would allow that once someone had been violent when under the influence of drink, then he should be placed under a special legal order that would punish him if he were found drunk again, and increase the punishment to which he would be liable if he committed any offence when in that state. This is a more subtle position on one recreational drug (alcohol) than Hattersley gives Mill credit for.
On the seat belt issue, it is not obvious that seat belt laws are straightforwardly paternalistic: it is not necessarily for the good of the adult backseat traveller that we have such laws. Surely the strong case is that in a world of very limited health resources those who take risks by not wearing safety belts put unnecessary burdens on the National Health service.