Free Speech Debate

Thirteen languages. Ten principles. One conversation.

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1We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.»
2We defend the internet and all other forms of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.»
3We require and create open, diverse media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.»
4We speak openly and with civility about all kinds of human difference.»
5We allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge.»
6We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.»
7We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.»
8We are all entitled to a private life but should accept such scrutiny as is in the public interest.»
9We should be able to counter slurs on our reputations without stifling legitimate debate.»
10We must be free to challenge all limits to freedom of expression and information justified on such grounds as national security, public order, morality and the protection of intellectual property.»

What’s missing?

Is there a vital area we have not addressed? A principle 11? An illuminating case study? Read other people's suggestions and add your own here. Or start the debate in your own language.

Timothy Garton Ash | An explanation

Is nothing sacred?

This draft principle addresses one of the most difficult issues for freedom of expression. It balances an essential respect for the humanity, dignity and personal choice of every individual believer with an equally vital freedom to question the claims of any belief system, organisation or group.

Religion and free speech

Religion has always been a problem for free speech and free speech for religion. It seems plausible to suggest that something akin to what we now call religion was the first major voluntary constraint that groups of human beings put on their own defining power of speech. Is there a recorded culture, which has not had some areas of the sacred or the taboo? In the transatlantic west, the discussion of freedom of expression that developed from the 17th century onward, through what in the west is called the Enlightenment, was all about how to deal with religious authority and conflict.

In the mid-20th century, it was widely believed in the west that modernisation would inevitably lead to secularisation. But religion has never gone away. In Europe, some of the most acute free speech controversies of our time have erupted in the electrified triangle between Islam, Christianity and atheism. You have only to look to India and the Middle East to see how words, images and symbols related to religion can become the occasion for hostility and violence involving other groups defined in whole or part by religion: Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, Ahmadis.

The things that we hold sacred are, by definition, amongst our most important things. In Poland and Russia, the legislation limiting what we can say about religion talks of “offending religious feelings” – and religious feelings are some of the strongest that human beings have. Muslims are taught to hold the prophet Muhammad dearer to them than their own children. To listen to the late Pope John Paul II praying to the Virgin Mary was to hear a son speaking to his mother. Even for a non-believer, it was profoundly moving.

Most societies in history have reinforced these feelings, and buttressed their own social and political orders, by enforcing taboos. In modern states, this has often taken the form of blasphemy laws, which protect some but not all religions. In Britain, a blasphemy law that protected Christianity alone was repealed only in 2008. Most majority Muslim countries have blasphemy laws protecting only or mainly Islam. In Pakistan, article 295 of the penal code stipulates that “derogatory remarks” about the prophet Muhammad “by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation, or by any imputation, innuendo or insinuation, directly or indirectly” shall be punishable by death. One woman, Aasia Bibi, was actually sentenced to death under this article. In a number of Muslim countries, such protections are included in the terms and conditions of internet service providers.

“Defamation of religions”?

As everyone becomes neighbours with everyone else, either physically or virtually, there are two ways we can go. We can dismantle those selective taboos, which protect just one or a few religions predominant in a particular territory, or we can spread them to all religions equally, on the lines of, “You respect my taboo and I’ll respect yours.” In Britain, for example, Muslim community leaders argued that the blasphemy law should be extended to include Islam. Internationally, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, an association of 56 majority Muslim states, spent years pressing the UN to adopt what it called “new binding normative standards” prohibiting “defamation of religions”.

But what is meant by “religions”? Beside the three so-called Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Christianity and Judaism – most people would readily acknowledge such established religions as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Sikhism, Jainism and Yoruba. Confucianism would also qualify by virtue of antiquity and number of adherents, though some question whether it is strictly a religion. But what about, say, Scientology? What about astrology? Secular Europeans often scoff at the naive religiosity of Americans, but according to one survey, more than half the inhabitants of France, Germany and Britain say they take astrology seriously. And what about the 390,000 people in the 2001 British census who identified their faith as “Jedi”?

Who decides what is a “serious” religion? In the US, the law treats Scientology as a religion like any other; in Germany, Scientology is outlawed as a dangerous sect. (A German Scientologist was actually given asylum in the US on the grounds of religious persecution.) Is the qualification being around a long time and having a lot of supporters? In that case, Christianity certainly did not qualify in the first century CE. Or is it simply having the power to compel people to take you seriously?

The qualification clearly cannot be some standard of generally agreed reasonableness. For faith is, by definition, not subordinated to reason. Theologians of many religions argue that reason can support and accompany faith, but that’s a different matter. Moreover, some central claims of established religions plainly contradict each other.

And what about atheists? Don’t their claims have a right to equal protection? Indeed they do, says Britain’s Public Order Act, which defines a “religious group” as a “group of persons defined by reference to religious belief or a lack of religious belief”. So being irreligious makes me…religious. Historians also point out that adherence to several religions is established not by belief but by ritual observance. You can be a Jew, in the religious sense, without believing in God.

These are not frivolous objections, or an attempt to “reduce to the absurd”. So wide and fluid are the boundaries of what may be construed as religion, so important to human lives are the questions it raises, that any attempt to impose such limits will end up severely restricting what knowledge we can pursue (see P5), what differences we can speak openly about (see P4) and what public policy options we can debate freely through open, diverse media (see P3).

The UN’s Human Rights Committee agrees. Its authoritative interpretation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that, “Prohibitions of displays of lack of respect for a religion or other belief system, including blasphemy laws, are incompatible with the Covenant.” Such displays must not, however, violate Article 20’s ban on, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence.” This still leaves a wide margin for interpretation, but the criterion is not disrespect for (or “defamation of”) any religion as such.

Two kinds of respect

Yet, as has been stressed throughout these introductions, saying that it should not be banned by law is only half the story. That does not mean we should in fact choose to say whatever we like, as offensively as we like, about something so important to other women and men. Principle 7 draws on a useful distinction made by the philosopher Stephen Darwall between two kinds of respect. When we say, unequivocally and unconditionally, that, “We respect the believer”, we mean what Darwall calls “recognition respect”. When we say, “but not necessarily the content of the belief” we mean what Darwall calls “appraisal respect”.

So the first part of this draft principle means: I recognise that, even if you believe something that I regard as dangerous nonsense, and wish to persuade you not to believe, you have the same basic humanity, the same inherent dignity, the same inalienable, universal rights as me. Your human and civil rights, your equality before the law, the respect owed you simply as a member of the human race; none should be reduced one jot or tittle on this account.

It clearly also embraces the core freedom of religion, which Article 18 of the Covenant defines as the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of your choice, and to manifest it “in worship, observance, practice and teachings” either individually or in community with others, in public or in private.

This unequivocal respect for the believer may also (though need not) include an empirical recognition that most, if not all, human beings do hold some beliefs not susceptible to scientific verification. Evidence from cognitive and neuroscientific studies suggests that a religious component may be “hardwired” in the human mind. I have heard the scientific atheist Richard Dawkins acknowledge that religious belief may, in the past, have been an evolutionary advantage.

Moreover, everyday human experience suggests that the fact that people believe, in some corner of their beings, things that appear to others profoundly untrue, does not make them any less trustworthy as accountants, car mechanics or even (strange but true) as wives or husbands. Obviously, the more irrational and wrong their belief system seems to us, and the more it intrudes on wider areas of life, the more problematic it becomes. You may be happy enough to have a creationist as your dentist but not want him to teach your son biology. Having a High Fiver (a believer that 2 + 2 = 5) work as a company accountant might create some difficulties. But there are vast stretches of life where, in practice, such problems do not arise. We can respect the believer while not respecting the belief.

Appraisal respect

Appraisal respect is more demanding. This is the kind that says, “I respect your skill as a footballer, your work as a writer, your courage as a soldier, your dedication as a nurse.” So the second part of this principle calls on us to appraise the claims, track record and current practices of a religion. That appraisal can end in full-frontal rejection. As one atheist writer reportedly puts it, “I respect you too much to respect your ridiculous beliefs.” At the other extreme, it can lead to total acceptance: I am so convinced by the claims of your religion that I convert to it. Either way, we must be free to have an open, no-holds-barred debate about the claims of any and all religions, up to and including conversion to another faith – or to atheism – without fear of reprisals. In much of the world, this is not the case. Questioning or abandoning the faith you were brought up in, or that prevails in your community, meets sanctions ranging from social ostracism to death.

There are also less frontal forms of appraisal, which may yield more qualified forms of respect. One of them is described by the German philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Reflecting on the “mutual recognition which is constitutive for shared citizenship”, Habermas says, “Secular citizens are expected not to exclude a fortiori that they may discover, even in religious utterances, semantic contents and covert personal intuitions that can be translated and introduced into a secular discourse.” If I translate what you are saying in your own religious vocabulary into my own language, I may find that you are saying something I can agree with – or at least, that contains an element of truth. This is not an entirely new idea: you can find a germ of this thought in the 12th edict of the 3rd century BCE Indian king, Asoka, where he recommends people to learn from “the essentials” of other religions.

There is also a form of genuine appraisal respect, which can be divorced from the content of the belief. I can find your beliefs, even when translated into my own language, to be irrational, yet still both admire your personal conduct and recognise that, at least by your own account – and who should know better? – your admirable conduct is largely or wholly motivated by those beliefs. You do things I regard, by my own criteria, as good, brave, noble, on grounds that make no sense to me. Suppose it were the case that, say, 99% of the small but select church of High Fivers (believers that 2 + 2 = 5) performed extraordinary, selfless service to the weak and suffering in their societies, always insisting that this was a commandment of their faith. Would we not be moved to express a genuine appraisal respect for their behaviour, even while continuing to insist that the central tenet of their faith was untrue?

Yet even if we have none of these kinds of appraisal respect, either for the belief or for the conduct based on it, we will still, unconditionally, have that recognition respect for the believer. To maintain this distinction is the only way in which people of all faiths and none can live together in freedom.

Isn’t this privileging one belief?

This draft principle asks of all believers something which many find very difficult: to make and maintain this difference between the self and the belief. And it invites this last objection: are you not, in fact, asking us to put one belief above all others? The belief, that is, that everyone should rub along together in this way. This belief in the liberal virtue of tolerance makes the remarkable demand that we should accept others continuing to believe and act upon convictions that we think are both intellectually and morally wrong.

How can it be right to accept what is wrong? Answer: because there is a higher good, which is that everyone should be free to choose how to live their own lives, so long as it does not prevent others doing the same. History suggests that we end up killing and coercing each other if we wish to impose our own “one true way” on them. So, on closer examination, this is not just another “one true way”. It is the only true way whose purpose is to make it possible for human beings to live out a multiplicity of other true ways.

So this draft seventh principle does put that one (non-religious) belief above the others. But it does not put it beyond question. If you want to question it, or flatly disagree, start here. The platform is yours.

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Published on: January 28, 2012 | 19 Comments

Comments (19)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. Henriette says:

    In my opinion this is a principle that should by applied World wide. Everyone has opinions and everyone should be entitled to one. This does however not mean that everyone should agree but at least people will have the opportunity to express their thoughts. It is all about respecting one another. However, unfortunately as the past has proven this is not always the case and implementing this principle will be one of the most difficult due to factors such as religion.

  2. Sara says:

    I think most of the people don’t have the knowledge about other religions and have therefor a hard time to respect religions. Today this principle should be applied world wide as we have more knowledge about the world, its different kinds of people, and their religions. As already mentioned in other comment the past have shown it does not work this way, but let us hope the future will be different.

    • Helle says:

      I agree with what Sara is saying. Religion is a difficult topic to discuss. However, it should be the case that when people voice their opinion others must respect it however this does not necessarily mean that they agree!

  3. dongiovanni says:

    Wenn hedonistische Ziele im Leben eines Menschen scheitern, ist es häufig der Glaube, der wieder Hoffnung bringt.

    Ich denke, grundsätzlich sollte jeder die Möglichkeit haben, seine Religion frei auszuüben und auf seine Art darin Erfüllung finden. Führt diese Auslebung seiner Überzeugung jedoch zur Beeinträchtigung anderer, sollte sie beschränkt werden.

  4. Mr. Chang says:

    Freiheit, und somit auch das Recht zur freien Rede, ist nur moeglich, wenn die Freiheit eines jeden Individuums nur so weit geht, dass sie niemals die Freiheit eines anderen Individuums einschraenkt. Somit existiert keine grenzenlose Freiheit. Fanatische Redner, die dazu aufhetzen, die Freiheit anderer einzuschraenken, sollten keine Redefreiheit geniessen. In diesem Falle respektiere ich weder ‘his content of belief’ noch den ‘believer’.

  5. xeniacernisenco says:

    My ne prave osujdati vybor ili mnenie cheloveka, pozitsia kotorogo rashoditsia s nashei. Etot vybor ili mnenie budet zaviseti ot mnogih faktorov: vospitanie, obrazovanie, a tak je okrujenie. V to vremea kak zrelosti nashei lichnosti proiavlietsia pri manere obchenia s chelovekom, chia pozitsia ralichna s nashei. Kak my otnosimsia k liudim, tak i liudi budut otnositiisa k nam. Ocheni vajno osoznavati,chto uvajenie lichnosti -eto osnova postroenia vzaimootnoshenii na raznyh urovniah.

  6. acellidiaz says:

    I don’t know if it is actually possible to commit to this principle. For what do we mean by “respect”? I think the article focuses too much on religion and doesn’t assess other “taboos” related to politics and that are part of collective memory. Is it possible to respect person that believes that Nazism is good and that it should be implemented? What do we think of those people? In many countries you can be charged for saying a statement like that; or among other consequences, people will decide not to speak to that person or to alienate him/her from society. In both cases, there are incentives for an individual not to speak his mind, because his thoughts are not against a specific belief but to other humans. Could we respect a person who thinks like this? Could we trust him or her? Could we be friends with a person that thinks that a race is better than another?
    Humanity witnessed how thoughts like these became politics in the XX century and the lessons were hard to learn. Does allowing an individual to revisit these ideologies represent a risk, that at some point that that horrendous chapter in history can happen again?

  7. Publicspaceshult says:

    I think this concept is a nice idea however some theories are insulting and counter productive. If for example, one attempts to justify slavery, the holocaust, discrimination or something of the sort, should the believer be respected?

  8. Publicspaceshult says:

    respecting all religion will result to a better and more tolerant world. I strongly agree with the statement

  9. Publicspaceshult says:

    I believe that every single person is entitled to their own religious and spiritual belief and others should respect them as believers as well as the content on their belief – as long as it doesn’t cause any harm to those around them.

  10. Publicspaceshult says:

    This belief is very important because predominant ideas in society can change over time, and we must allow voices to be heard, even if they dissent against commonly held ideals.

  11. VOrtizMC says:

    I agree with the idea of this principle in the sense that every single individual has the right to believe whatever he or she feels like. But I also think that just by promoting this ideal the world is not going to change positively. I believe it is necessary to approach today’s ignorance by fighting it with education, respect, and tolerance. If these methods are used to reinforce the principle I believe attempts to impose ones beliefs or ideologies into others will be reduced, and a more harmonious lifestyle will be achieved. Moreover, I do find some discrepancies within this principle. Just like other individuals have posted and commented, what if the ideology, religion, or belief practiced by an individual or group affects or threatens others? It is stated within the explanation of the principle that we should accept this “one belief” (the principle) above others in other to coexist freely and fight for the higher good. The higher good being that “everyone should be free to choose how to live their own lives, so long as it does not prevent others doing the same.” Well, this sounds kind of comforting, but there is so much to consider. Who or which authorities will provide the guidelines and enforce them? And what type of guidelines? Since something might be insulting for Christians but maybe not for Scientologists. And is Scientology considered a religion? If it is, which ones are not, and how are people following these other religions or ideologies supposed to contribute or express themselves?

  12. rshahrad says:

    Thank you , this article was very useful and I enjoyed reading it
    I think this topic should be promoted specially within Iran
    I think the Persian translation of it
    could be better
    and I am ready to cooperate improving the Persian translation
    thanks again

  13. says:

    No, no, no!

    It’s a fundamental part of my freedom that I shouldn’t have to respect anyone. Force me to respect anyone and you’ve taken my freedom away.

    It may be true that many of us who campaign for free speech do indeed respect many of the people whose beliefs and opinions we disagree with – but we should not be forced to do so. If free speech is to mean anything substantial, then it absolutely should allow us the right to be disrespectful towards the believer as well as towards their beliefs. There is no balancing to be done – this is a point of principle, not something to be bargained away in our quest to be allowed the right to criticise people’s beliefs.

    Tempting as it might be to appease the opponents of free speech by reassuring them that our questioning of their beliefs does not mean we are being disrespectful to them as people, we should never give ground on the principle that we should have the fundamental right to decide for ourselves who we respect and who we do not respect.

    The only way we need to respect the believer is in regard to respecting their freedoms, but that’s more about adhering to the principles of freedom rather than about respecting them as a person.

    Hopefully, most people will choose to be respectful towards the believer – but this should remain entirely an issue of individual choice. Nobody should have an automatic right to our respect – for to enforce such a right would be to take freedom away from everyone else.

    • Judith Bruhn says:

      Hi imos

      thanks for this thoughtful comment. Might your problem with the word ‘respect’ be the definition? Because if we take ‘respect’ at its most basic – accepting that others are different and not wish to harm them – then I cannot see how we can live in a peaceful society without respect. If we are talking about ‘respect’ as a feeling of appraisal, then I absolutely agree with you.

      What are your thoughts on this? If we do not show respect to everyone, how can we uphold the human right that everyone’s dignity is untouchable? I look forward to reading your reply.

      • says:

        Hi JB,

        Thanks for replying to my comment!

        I think we should respect other people in the sense that we allow them to have their freedoms – but, as I say, that’s more about respecting a principle than about respecting a person. So long as you allow people their freedoms, then why shouldn’t we be able to live in a peaceful society? The minute someone uses violence, they are taking away someone else’s freedoms, but we can maintain our freedoms without any logical requirement to respect each other.

        As for people’s dignity, I don’t recognise any fundamental human right to maintain one’s dignity. People lose their dignity for all sorts of reasons – usually as a result of their own unprincipled behaviour. If you stick to decent principles, then there’s no reason why your dignity should be harmed by what anybody else does or says.

  14. Fool4Reason says:

    I agree with imos. It is freedom that is at issue here, not respect. Parsing respect into two different forms, “recognition respect” and “appraisal respect” is leads away from a full understanding what is actually at stake.

    Misplaced respect can be a very dangerous thing. As an extreme example, say I am walking down the street with a friend, and we happen upon someone being beaten. At my urging, we jump to his aid, and pull his attacker away, and restrain the attacker. Another bystander calls the police. Meanwhile, the person who was being attacked, pulls a gun from his pocket, and shoots both his attacker, and my friend, wounding the attacker, and killing my friend. He also fires a shot at me, but it misses. Then he gets up and runs away.

    Before the police arrive the “attacker” who I no longer need to restrain, because he is wounded, says to me with a world weary sadness, that the other guy had threatened to rob him, and he was in the process of defending himself, when me and my friend showed up and intervened, on the would be robbers behalf.

    Who exactly deserves respect in this case? Me? My friend? No. Only the guy laying on the ground with the bullet in him. And who is free? Me? No, I’m going to be talking to the police for a while, and living with the guilt of my friend’s death for the rest of my life. The misunderstood “attacker”? No. He’s going to the hospital, and will be paralyzed for the rest of his days, because the bullet nicked his spinal cord. My dead friend? Nope, not really. Although some would say that death is a kind of freedom, I suppose.
    The only free person among us is the robber, who by the way is never caught for this crime. In the real world, there is no such thing as “recognition respect” In this usage of the word respect, there are two possible meanings: “Esteem for or a sense of the worth or excellence of a person” or “deference to a right, privilege, privileged position, or someone or something considered to have certain rights or privileges”.

    With respect to “respecting the believer, but not the belief, one needs to be careful. Respect need not be granted to everyone. It must be earned. And freedom is a gift, granted to us only by our circumstances. It’s nice to think that one day the world may be a fairer, better place to live. But each of us must decide how much we are willing to do to try and make it so, and be prepared to get sand kicked in your face from time to time, because this world is not perfect, and it never will be.

    Oh, and although I have only today discovered this site, I love it and (almost) everything it stands for! Snap decision? Yes, but that is my style.

  15. formandsubstance says:

    If religion were just a matter of recognizing a particular prophet and performing particular private rituals then this formulation would be pretty good.

    One man is a Jew and recognizes the prophet Moses. He prays to a God whom he takes to be the only God.

    A Christian is much the same except that he replaces Moses with Jesus.

    A Muslim replaces Jesus with Mahommed.

    And a Hindu recognizes thousands of Gods.

    But it’s not at all like that; it’s not at all private.

    A little while ago young Muslim men frequented the beaches in southern Sydney and approached the girls in their swimming costumes and told them they were “sluts” and “whores.” When the lifesavers told them to cool it they bashed the lifesavers. The lifesavers! Bashing lifesavers is more aggressive towards the society-as-a-whole than defecating on the tomb of the unknown soldier.

    And eventually there were huge battles between groups of Muslim and non-Muslim young men.

    It is not just a matter of private prayer. It is a matter of what behaviour and practices are allowed in public. It is a matter of raising money to support the ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

    It is a matter of establishing schools to segregate your kids, and in other ways brainwashing and them.

    And it is a matter of killing people who write things about your prophet that hurt your feelings. Ask the writers and film makers who can’t go to the shops without an armed guard.

    Since certain religions have embraced modernity and since others (one at least) are determinedly medieval, I don’t think that we can “rub along.” Sooner or later the determinedly medieval lot will do enough things like flying airplanes into the World Trade Centre that a civil war will break out. There will be people like Neville Chamberlain who will pompously announce “peace in our time,” but there can be no peace.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.