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We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.
Timothy Garton Ash, director of Free Speech Debate, gives a personal introduction
The power of speech defines us as human beings. Language enables us to negotiate our differences in ways not available to most animals. Yet throughout history this power been used to animate us to kill other members of our own species. Even the most outspoken advocates of free speech therefore recognise that there should be limits to how far we can allow words and images to incite to violence. The difficulties begin when it comes to working out where the limits should be.
- Where do you draw the line?
- Against the assassin’s veto
- Intimidation and appeasement
- Courage and solidarity
Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights says states should forbid, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” That leaves a huge margin for interpretation. The US sets a high bar for incitement to violence. In what is known as the “Brandenburg Test” (after the supreme court case of Brandenburg v Ohio) the violence must be intended, likely and imminent. Other mature liberal democracies set the bar lower, criminalising both more generalised threats of violence and kinds of expression that incite to hatred or hostility.
Like everything else to do with free expression, so much depends on context and tone. The English liberal thinker John Stuart Mill famously argues that we should be free to publish a newspaper article saying that corn-dealers are starvers of the poor but not free to deliver the same message to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn-dealer. (Today we might say investment banker.) When readers of Britain’s Guardian newspaper see at the top of the front page, “Charlie Brooker: Execute Simon Cowell and give away croissants”, they don’t read that as incitement to murder. They know it’s a joke. When the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi threatened to go through the city of Benghazi “alley by alley”, showing “no mercy”, everybody knew it was not a joke.
An extreme case of speech inciting violence is Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines in Rwanda, which encouraged murderous gangs of Hutus to kill some 800,000 Tutsis (and moderate Hutus) by repeatedly calling over the airwaves for a “final war” to “exterminate the cockroaches”. Even if you think, in the American first amendment tradition, that we should in principle be free to describe other groups of people as “cockroaches” (see P4), you will still conclude that this should have been stopped. The violence was intended, likely and imminent.
Context also means: do you have those open, diverse media we talk about in Principle 3? Inflammatory, hate-stirring speech can then be countered by more and better speech in other influential media. Trying to explain the brutalisation of Serbia under its elected dictator Slobodan Milošević, one observer commented, “Imagine if all the main television channels in the US had been taken over for the last five years by the Klu Klux Klan.” Susan Benesch is developing a five-part test for determining when hate speech becomes what she calls “dangerous speech”, meaning speech that will probably lead to violence.
Incidentally, we are talking here mainly about violence by individuals and groups, not states. Although Article 20 of the Covenant also states flatly that, “Any propaganda for war shall be prohibited by law,” very few countries have laws preventing their own leaders propagating the case for going to war (although some have rules about how they should go about it).
Like the other principles, this one is not meant to define precisely what the law should or should not ban. It is a rule of thumb we give ourselves, to guide our own conduct. It has two parts: 1. We do not make threats of violence. 2. We do not allow, accept or yield to violent intimidation. These are two sides of the same coin. If you yield to one threat of violence, you encourage another. Group B, which feels passionately that Y should not be said or depicted, will say to itself, “Ah, Group A got X stopped by threatening violence, we should do the same.”
The literature on free speech contains the now old-fashioned concept of the heckler’s veto. If hecklers at a meeting are allowed to shout too loud and long, they deny the speaker his or her right to speak. These days, we see more of the assassin’s veto. Individuals or groups send this simple message: “If you say that, we will kill you.” Sometimes they keep their promise. Hundreds of women and men around the world have been murdered simply for things they have said – writers about the Mafia, critics and satirists of several religions and regimes, dissidents, cartoonists, publishers, novelists and investigative journalists. Many more walk in fear of one of the many variants of the assassin’s veto.
Both halves of this principle have equal weight. We have as much of a duty to resist threats of violence as we do to refrain from making them. In this respect, many so-called free countries have done very badly in recent years. Again and again, they have appeased explicit or implicit threats of violence – sometimes in the name of “respect” for religion (see P7), “community cohesion”, “public order” or “multiculturalism” – rather than combatting them with all the force of the law and the determination of a united society.
A classic example of misplaced appeasement was furnished not so long ago by my American publisher, Yale University Press. Yale was to publish a very serious scholarly book by Professor Jytte Klausen about the Danish cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, called The Cartoons that Shook the World. A sheaf of illustrations was prepared, reproducing the whole page of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in which the cartoons had appeared, so you could see them in their original context, and earlier depictions of Muhammad in both western and Islamic art, to give a wider historical perspective. Shortly before publication, Yale University and its press decided to pull the illustrations. So the one thing the reader cannot now see in a book called The Cartoons that Shook the World is….the cartoons that shook the world.
In a statement, the publisher cited, “experts in the intelligence, national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic fields, as well as leading scholars in Islamic studies and Middle Eastern studies”, who apparently opined that by republishing the cartoons the press “ran a serious risk of instigating violence”. The director of Yale University Press, John Donatich, said that he had never shirked controversy, “but when it came between that and blood on my hands, there was no question”.
This argument is not merely muddled; it is entirely back-to-front. It is not Yale University Press that would be “instigating” violence, but those who (might have) threatened violence in response to its entirely reasonable act. It is not Donatich who, in the event of violent action, would have “blood on [his] hands”, but those who perpetrated the violence. The victim is not the perpetrator. If a great university press is not prepared to publish such material in a scholarly study, then violent intimidation has triumphed. There are, alas, many more such examples, in the media, arts and local communities of some of the most free countries in the world – not to mention, in the less free and the unfree.
An English law case from 1882 illuminates the confusion. A Salvation Army group had been arrested by the police for pressing ahead with a march which, several times before, had been violently disrupted by an opposing group, gloriously named the Skeleton Army. The English court held that the police should have restrained the Skeleton Army, which was the one threatening violent intimidation, not the Salvation Army, which was the object of it. That judgment can be generalised to every continent in our own time: don’t stop your Salvation Armies, stop your Skeleton Armies!
To resist violent intimidation requires the full rigour of the law. It requires the police to protect those under threat, rather than telling them to shut up. It also needs the courage of exceptional individuals who have risked and sometimes given their lives for free expression: people like the Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya; the governor of Punjab, Salmaan Taseer; the Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink; and the Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendes. We cannot begin to list them all, but please do add names here, with an explanation of why you believe they belong on this honour roll.
Yet these brave individuals cannot do it on their own, any more than the state can do it on its own. A third vital element is the solidarity of societies and communities. The more people share the burden of intimidation, the smaller that burden becomes. When one man, Khaled al-Johani, stood alone to speak his mind in Saudi Arabia, he was whisked away to prison. When half a million stood together in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, it was Hosni Mubarak, the instigator of violence, who was toppled.
Such solidarity does not require agreement with the views of those who speak out. Since dissenters often have strong, mutually incompatible views, it is logically impossible to agree with all of them. You could not, for example, consistently agree with the visions for Russia’s future articulated by those two great anti-Soviet dissidents, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, since they disagreed fundamentally with each other; but you could stand in equal solidarity with them both. There’s a famous sentence attributed to Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” Voltaire never actually said that – the proverbial line was coined by an early 20th century biographer – but the spirit of his apocryphal remark is exactly right. We need that spirit now more than ever.
Though there is a margin of interpretation from case to case, context to context, this is one of the simplest of our principles. It is also one of the hardest to put into practice. You can get killed for following it.