Curbing free speech can't stem hatred

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 September, 2012, 2:36am

The right of free speech, a central pillar of democracy and a free society, cannot be regulated with taboos and no-go areas, otherwise speech would no longer be free. Once the principle of control was established there would be no end to it. Freedom of speech is a cherished right, best safeguarded from erosion by common sense and responsibility in the exercise of it, such as due regard for the cultural and moral sensibilities of the audience.

Gratuitous disregard for them, causing offence beyond tolerance, can prompt the victims to conclude that a curb on free speech is the only response proportionate to the offence. Regrettably, we have reached that point in the United Nations General Assembly, the highest forum for finding common ground among diverse national and regional interests.

This year, the gulf between Muslim and Western values emerged as an obstacle. Muslim delegations came prepared to demand international curbs on speech or media that they believe defame their religion or the Prophet Mohammed.

They were prompted, of course, by the anti-Muslim video made in the US that went viral on the internet and stirred anti-American riots around the world. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged all 57 Islamic nations to unite behind a call for international legal regulations against attacks on what people deem sacred. This reflects a view that anti-Islamic material is a form of "hate speech" that warrants curbs.

Since there is no prospect that legal protections of free speech in Western democracies will be dismantled, this serves to expose seemingly irreconcilable political philosophies. The issue cannot be left there. Muslim leaders wanted action, not words. Nonetheless they should heed President Barack Obama's remark in the general assembly that the best weapon against hateful speech is ultimately the voice of tolerance that rallies the majority against bigotry and blasphemy. Curbs on free speech cannot stop incitement to religious and racial hated, because it is driven by ignorance and intolerance.