It was Erasmus who said that 'In a free state, tongues too should be free.' I thought a little rumination on free speech might be in order, as much to clarify my own thoughts as anything else. You see 'free speech' is one of those givens that, simply by invoking its insubstantial image, you can supposedly trump any argument or justify any obscenity. In order to look more closely at applied freedom of thought we need to step back from abstract notions for a moment.
The Declaration of Human Rights (article 19) states that "Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Which looks like a reasonable starting point to me.
Except we've never held to this idea in its purest form. It's generally accepted that it should be an offence to slander someone, to incite illegal acts, to distribute child pornography - most of us don't believe people should be able to say anything they please regardless of the consequences.
Nor do we accept that everyone should have access to all media outlets. Newspapers aren't like wikis where everyone has equal say on the content, which is what makes them readable and useful. There is quality control for a start. People talk about the free press but the last time I looked you have to have quite a lot of money to own a newspaper, and I don't think I'm being entirely cynical to think this might influence the content therein, but it's an accepted fact of life.
I think when we talk about free speech we usually mean where restrictions on free expression should be the exception rather than the rule. That doesn't mean that you don't hear people bringing up freedom of speech as if it is some sort of universal rule - it's just that those people are wrong and usually don't believe it themselves.
We all know that Voltaire said that "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." Except that he didn't. That's a quote from a book about Voltaire written in 1906 where the author's words have been mistakenly attributed to him.
However, he did say something similar, but subtly different, in a letter to someone he was arguing with. "I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write." Now, I don't know about you but it seems to me that he's being rather specific here.
He is making a particular point to a particular person that he hopes will not be forced to stop writing. What he is not doing is creating a generalised principle that everyone has the "right" to say anything they like - yet Voltaire's epigones universally wheel the old boy in to make exactly that point.
It's also interesting to note that it's often the same people who bluster about giving their lives for obnoxious people to do obnoxious things who don't defend anything when it involves getting out of their armchairs, let alone to the extent of dying for principles they may or may not adhere to. But it makes for a nice menacing soundbite with the authority of one of the foremost thinkers of the Enlightenment so I don't expect anyone to stop any time soon.
Having said all this I should clarify, I agree with freedom of speech as a general rule with those limited exceptions that are generally accepted. A society where people have the leeway to say radical, mad, stupid, offensive and wrong things is far preferable to one where any group imposes strict controls on what can and cannot be said. So, for instance, the concept of free speech zones looks pretty repugnant to me.
For a genuine participatory democracy it is vital that people should have the ability to kick against the status quo and debate the differences in their ideas. It means that freedom of expression has to apply to views we don't like just as much as those we do - if not more so.
The right to transgress against accepted truths is a good one, it just isn't one that has descended from heaven. To limit those freedoms isn't heresy but normal and accepted practice, despite the fact that we see the term censor as a purely pejorative one.
I suspect the way we apply "freedom of speech" is based upon what consequences we find acceptable, which is an undoubtedly subjective criteria. In other words it's not how distasteful we find an idea but how distasteful we find the results of it having been expressed.
We don't want the reputation of innocent people smeared so we limit what can be said about someone. We don't want children sexually abused so we find the distribution of such images to be unacceptable.
We don't want to see Jews pumped into gas chambers so all decent, thinking people don't want to see fascists come to power. Those who died in the gas chambers did not die because their arguments were not up to scratch but because a racist goon doesn't need clever ripostes when backed by a mass movement supported by the State.
Harpymarx says that "Fascism does not gain its political force from the coherence of its ideas. It derives its force from being a movement that will use the most extreme measures". Some think that the opportunity to pull apart the semi-literate ramblings of those like Richard Barnbrook will be enough to prevent attacks like this one by BNP members on Friday night. I don't agree.
For me the key to applied freedom of expression is taking a sensible and considered approach in context rather than a blanket free-for-all which, if actually applied, would lead to an escalation of murder, abuse, and other detestable behaviour.
This means I'm not for banning the BNP from having a website or publishing their journal but I am opposed to the Daily Telegraph giving Barnbrook his own space on their website. By allowing him, and a number of other fascist bloggers, to associate with a mainstream paper isn't just a parlour game of manners but is to flirt with those who'd bring pain, misery and heartache to millions in this country not in words - but in deeds.