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How much freedom of speech?

Hard questions were raised about the rights and limits to freedom of speech by the brutal murder of eleven people in the office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January 2015. The Summer 2016 issue of Studies takes this as its main focus. It is entitled ‘Freedom of speech: How far can you go?’

In the lead article, Neville Cox, Professor of Law in TCD, tries to understand the most curious thing about the global response to the Charlie Hebdo attack. Many awful events, he says, including natural disasters, celebrity deaths and indeed other terrorist attacks, may elicit sympathy, sadness and shock, but Charlie Hebdo uniquely engendered a powerful solidarity across the Western world. Why?

“The only consistent explanation,” he asserts, “is that the solidarity was with the concept of an unfettered right to publish material like the ‘Muhammad Cartoons'”. But this is problematic. Such an explicit support of a fundamental principle of secular liberalism is necessarily a form of opposition to a fundamental principle of Islamic thought. The Islamic world claims that it too has a rights-based system, but it does not agree that rights should extend to blasphemy. What we have then is two competing claims to a universal set of truths, ‘Rightstalk’ on the one hand and Shari’a law on the other, yet “the truth of neither of these purportedly universalist ideologies is capable of being empirically proven”. Furthermore, Cox argues, the Western liberal argument that such documents as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are the product of international consensus is not necessarily convincing. Firstly, that consensus excluded countries that didn’t share the dominant ideological culture of the West. Also, there was never any serious effort to consider alternatives to the “liberal, post-Enlightenment norms” which characterised the Declaration of Human Rights.

Cox notes further that the Western consensus on rights does in fact accommodate some forms of limitation of freedom of expression – racist speech, for example. It just doesn’t extend to blasphemy. In other words, Cox says, “the clash between Western secularists who see blasphemy laws as unjustified interferences with freedom of expression, on the one hand, and Muslims who wish to see the sacred legally protected from blasphemy, on the other, becomes, in effect, a clash of moral visions which are impossible to prove but upon which the respective societies are based”.

In ‘Freedom of expression, No matter what?’, Patrick Riordan SJ questions further the issues surrounding the ways in which Western political cultures handles the negative side of freedom of expression. What stance ought one to take on hate speech, for example? Should it receive constitutional protection, as happens in the US, in order to preserve some more fundamental value such as freedom of the individual? Or should it be curbed in order to secure (in the words of philosopher of law Jeremy Waldron) “a particular aspect of social peace and civic order under justice: the dignity of inclusion and the public good of mutual assurance concerning the fundamentals of justice”?

Other articles, by Patrick Claffey, Brian Trench, and Felix Larkin, also respond to the problems of balancing social goods in a Western democratic context which have been raised by the Charlie Hebdo affair. Expanding the issue to include ‘Free speech in the Church’, Gerry O’Hanlon SJ notes that the teaching on freedom of speech and expression in the Church is “overwhelmingly positive”, while lamentably the practice has been seen to be “quite repressive”. O’Hanlon pays special attention to Karl Rahner’s arguments for free speech in the Church in the 1950s and then the change of attitude to this issue in Vatican II, particularly noting Pope John XXIII’s affirmation at the opening of the council that the Church “meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations”. There was, however, a “failure of nerve, even a loss of faith” (Jim Corkery SJ) in the aftermath of the council, and “a more fearful climate reasserted itself”. The silencing of discussion within the Church of the subject of women’s ordination receives particular attention. Pope John Paul II determined to end discussion with his exhortation Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) and his alteration of Canon Law in Ad Tuendam Fidem (1998). A distinction must be made, however, according to O’Hanlon, between boldly declaring that women should be ordained and claiming the freedom to examine and attempt to understand the main arguments given in the matter. The latter – which may eventually have issue in a return to a discussion of the teaching itself – reflects an important value in the Church understood as echoing the free communication of the persons in the Blessed Trinity and as a sign, a sacrament, of the free communication of the divine self to us. The model God provides us with, then, is “freedom of speech which is rooted in responsible love”.

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