Striking a balance: where does free speech end?

There is so much to be said about freedom of expression, you sometimes wish people wouldn’t express themselves so freely. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, publishers have been rushing to reprint Voltaire’s 1763 Treatise on Tolerance, meeting the rising demand for people to “defend to the death” their right to say whatever, to whomever they like. Turning to Voltaire as a touchstone for free expression is itself an uneasy notion, particularly as the famous quote is not his own.

World leaders marched in Paris for fundamental values such as press freedom, while at the same time declining to reproduce the controversial images of Mohammed. If anything, the very people who claim to be standing up for free speech, respect and tolerance were seen bowing down to self-censorship and fear. To confuse an already very muddled understating of tolerance even further, this week saw the European Jewish Congress (EJC) call for pan-European legislation that would outlaw, among a whole host of nasties, anti-Semitism, banning the burqa, polygymy, and forced marriage. Responding to a dramatic increase in the number of Jews emigrating to Israel, and in the same week that a YouGov survey found that nearly half of Britons agree with anti-Semitic statements, the proposal is hoped to pass as law in all 28 EU member states.

What seems most striking about the legislation is its selectivity. Why, in the name of tolerance, are attempts to ban the veil discouraged, while at the same time polygamy is barred outright as a cultural practice that cannot be tolerated?

Why can forced marriage be criticised, while any form of ‘group libel’- a new crime that bans the slander and ridicule of any ethnic, cultural or religious group- is outlawed, despite its implications for our much celebrated freedom of speech and expression?

These inconsistencies touch on a truly sensitive spot; different people have very different ideas about what tolerance entails.

Granted, the topicality of the proposed legislation was unintended. The fourth international ‘Let My People Live’ conference in Prague at which the proposal was unveiled could have never anticipated the urgency lent to a conversation on tolerance by the terrorist attacks in Paris this month. And yet, there is no denying that it struck a chord. There must be a way for freedom of expression and tolerance to be compatible. This is something that has become increasingly apparent, not only in Paris, but also at home, where Cameron’s crusade against internet freedoms repeatedly fails to tolerate our liberty online.

Ultimately, the usefulness of the EJC’s broad, pan-national framework is doubtful and there is little hope that Europe’s restrictions on free speech are about to be dramatically radicalised. However, that there is little hope of it passing does not take away from the extreme, and extremely flawed, sentiment. Tolerating others is an issue more complex than the proposed legislation gives credit to.

Yes, the proposal reflects the emergence of a sinister, intolerant climate that needs to be addressed. But, as passionately argued at the Prague conference by American Law professor Alan Dershowitz: “The great test of a democracy is to be tolerant to the intolerant.” This is where the EJC has failed. Restricting freedom of expression in order to enforce tolerance is inherently flawed.

Compromise is, of course, necessary. The balancing act of promoting tolerance while maintaining the right to offend is one that requires great acrobatic skill. However, it is certainly a conflict worth fighting for.

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