We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.

Where do you draw the line?

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 P5), 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 4? 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).

Against the assassin’s veto

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.

Intimidation and appeasement

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 P6), “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!

Courage and solidarity

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.

Comments (0)

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. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    Hello All,
    I don’t know a great deal about all this and I’m sort of rushing through with a speed read and a quick reply. I think there are different varieties of violence, and sometimes a mixture of those varieties. I am of the strong belief that some people are inherently more violent than others, for medical reasons. Their childhood can be a big part of things. What I would call social leisure violence, such as football hooliganism, is a particular type that has spread out with the advance of media technology. War is another type of violence which is state organised, which tends to be re labeled and glorified as much as possible. Where government are involved, there many fine speeches made and many new words for violence used. Guantánamo Bay for example was an act of pure highly organised violence and false information that inhibited free speech. This together with the tenure of President Trump has set new values; or the lack of them. The global population has always been about the have and have not. Technology has taken us a long way, but greed and violence will increase across the world. Drugs and alcohol are certainly a major factor in the Streets of the UK where I live and no doubt across much of the world.

  2. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    “Many states, mainly for political reasons, and companies, mainly for commercial ones, have already eroded the original dream.”
    When dreaming, we are prepared to accept the most preposterous and nonsensical of ‘experiences’ as reality. Possibly because, until we wake, there is nothing against which to compare the encounter occurring inside an hermetically sealed enclosure. Similarly the interweb has, at the very minimum, proffered an alternate. One that although not necessarily without error, might at least indicate when it is being interfered with. Since where contrast should be found, there will only be uniformity of opinion.

    “If you find a site is blocked”
    it is a sure and certain sign that an ‘understanding’ is being artificially protected and maintained. Because unlike self supporting truth, it cannot stand up to even elementary enquiry? Such as: Please share with the rest of us, that infallible procedure you utilised to confirm your elected ideology’s validity. That we might embrace that evaluation peacefully, without the need for duress.

    “they may imprison people for exchanging information or speaking their minds.”
    Given that their ‘comprehension’ constitutes a perfect representation of reality. Surely allowing others to test it, and thus affirm that actuality, would be the ideal means for disseminating it around the planet. Anything else would be an open admission of doubt, or downright certainty concerning its lack of legitimacy.

    “Western democratic governments denounce these practices.”
    Yet refuse to submit their own ideologies to intimate examination? Which may explain, why those they are in conflict with cannot see a reason they should offer their notions up for objective evaluation either.

    “Google itself has enormous potential power to limit or distort free speech.”
    But also an Achilles’ heel, in the form of a vulnerability to mass boycott?

    “we can lobby our governments to change their laws”
    Some say that if voting had any effect it would be prevented. Might they be drawing that conclusion from examples such as ‘EU referendums’?

    What we appear to be attempting, is analogous to collectively assembling a jigsaw puzzle. Which might prove easier, were we to first identify and agree on the scene we are jointly endeavouring to recreate.

  3. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    The internet is an amazing innovation with no precedent and any limitations upon it would be a shame. To limit it slightly would be to set in action a cascade of fetters that would shatter everything the Internet could have been.

  4. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    If we think of what the idea of the internet was in the beginning, the vastest storage of information shared among the whole world, of course it is normal to assume that it would become a vastest opportunity for innumerate crimes. But the basic idea, the true meaning of the whole invention is so valuable and must be absolutely preserved.
    Between the concept of abuse and freedom of speech there’s sometimes a very thin line, but it is always more important to say it all than to oppress ideas.
    Liberty that has been given to some of the big, like Google, and their “privacy respect” is always questionable, like it happened these days in GB, with admitting that Google car has been collecting (and selling) more info than actually needed for “filming the streets”.
    Any clerk with access to information, can always be willing to sell them for a good offer (remember the Swiss bank account holders’ information scandal…). It is just something that can not be stopped. But it must be fought and punished.
    We all deserve to see/read/hear everything that might (or even that might not) interest us, and judge ourselves upon it. Let’s try to keep it that way.

  5. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I share the importance of preventing the abuse of the content , however like in the comment above the dilemma of what should be considered as an abuse and who should define it is a big deal. And I think there is division in term of the priorities around that world. In the developed countries where there is a reasonable freedom of speech the abuse from the private side is more of an issue than in those countries where there is a constant state repression of the freedom of expression online. Moreover, this type of control does not guarantee protection of the other forms of abuse like child pornography. Thus I believe we the netizens should aim for liberating the online space to allow as much freedom of opinion expression as possible, even if it is at the cost of the abuse.

    • Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      I agree with you that we have to consider different countries and their cultures. It is very hard to generalise the principles, because it may be that some parts of the world have a completely different view than other parts. So it is quite a challenge to agree on ten principles globally and it is also interesting. I also agree that we have to try to have media which are as open as possible, but I disagree with you that it is even at the cost of the abuse. We have to differentiate between the freedom of speech and abuse. Therefore we have to define principles globally in order to be able decide globally whether this “speech” is accetable or an abuse.

      Ich stimme Dir zu, dass wir verschiedene Länder und deren Kulturen berücksichtigen müssen. Es ist sehr schwer, die Prinzipien zu verallgemeinern, weil es sein kann, dass einige Teile der Welt eine ganz andere Meinung als andere Teile haben. So ist es durchaus eine Herausforderung, auf zehn Prinzipien global zustimmen und es ist auch interessant. Ich stimme auch zu, dass wir versuchen, die Medien so offen wie möglich halten müssen, aber ich stimme Dir nicht zu, dass es auch um den Preis des Missbrauchs ist. Wir müssen zwischen der Freiheit der Rede und Missbrauch unterscheiden. Deshalb müssen wir Prinzipien global definieren, um in der Lage zu sein zu entscheiden, ob diese global “Rede” annehmbare oder ein Missbrauch ist.

  6. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    The question of legitimacy is indeed very tricky.
    Public powers should indeed have the power to ‘legitimately’ restrict certain information. Taking an extremely libertarian approach claiming that all information should be ‘free’ is far from the pragmatic reality.
    I would even argue that as the question of legitimacy is such a delicate question that it is virtually impossible to define it in a general principle. When using a phrase like ‘for the greater good of the public’ to define the legitimacy of restricted information, executive powers might however be prone to exploit this principle.

  7. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    In Italy, two days ago, a lawyer denounced the President of the Republic, the Head of Government, all Ministers and all the Members for:

    – Attack on the integrity, independence and unity of the State;
    – Subversive associations;
    – Attack on the Constitution of the State;
    – Usurpation of political power;
    – Attack on the constitutional bodies;
    – Attack on the political rights of citizens;
    – Political conspiracy by agreement;
    – Political conspiracy by association;

    but … only one independent newspaper broke the news!
    Must be spoken.

  8. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I’m here to tell the denied freedom of the press in Italy. This is a real problem.
    The censorship has reached unbearable levels! After the Treaty of Lisbon and the approval of the ACTA treaty, by the European Union, the only resource we have left to procure a real informaizoni is the net…but it also wants to censor the web!
    The project began long ago and came to the public through the bills SOPA and PIPA at the U.S. Congress. In Italy two politicians have already tried to censor the web through the fight pro-copyright.
    It’s necessary that we speak.

    I await the debate, thank you


  9. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    A quick glance through raises a couple of issues for WJR …

    This explanation appears a particularly net-centric view for a principle that includes “all other forms of communication” ?

    And, why the overly complicated language regarding corruption – “illegitimate encroachments” – why not just corruption. In seeking to define, a principle should not be limited by complexity.

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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. www.freespeechdebate.ox.ac.uk

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