Stifling free speech is not really free

Salim Mansur

This column was first published by Sun Media and appears here by permission of the author.

Free speech is not merely an ornamental bauble found in liberal
democratic societies. It is the well-fought ground upon which the structures of
such societies have been constructed.

It is free speech in practice, or
its ideal subscribed to, that has distinguished Europe and western civilization
from all others past and present. Its absence or suppression is the main feature
of totalitarian culture.

Yet free speech has never been entirely free
from siege by special interests.

Except for the United States where free
speech is constitutionally protected by the first amendment, the exercise of
free speech can still be constrained by the guardians of public interests as we
see in the case of the Dutch MP Geert Wilders, indicted and brought to court for
offending Muslims in Holland.

The trial of Wilders is as much a step
backward from the ideal of free speech as it is indicative of how free people
willingly compromise their freedom by forgetting their history.

indicting Wilders for hate speech, the Dutch, and their Western supporters, have
turned their backs to the long line of defenders of free speech as the
cornerstone of liberty, from Spinoza and Voltaire to Emile Zola.


No modern thinker has written as clearly and forcefully on
liberty, and what it means in the most fundamental sense of freedom of
conscience and freedom of speech, as did John Stuart Mill.

All subsequent
writings on the subject are mere footnotes or parenthetical circumlocutions of
those who have not abandoned the quest of abridging free speech – even as they
present themselves as defenders of freedom – by claiming to protect the rights
of others.

Mill contended it would be wrong any time for a government,
even if it represented completely the will and opinion of the entire people
under its rule, to control or suppress the opinion of an individual. Such
coercion, in Mill’s view, was illegitimate.

He wrote: “The best
government has no more title to it than the worst. It is as noxious, or more
noxious, when exercised in accordance with public opinion than when in
opposition to it. If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, mankind would be
no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power,
would be justified in silencing mankind.”

Western societies in general
have fallen short of Mill’s expressed ideal of liberty, but any infringement of
that ideal has smacked of bad faith. In recent years, multiculturalism was
propounded as if to ease the conscience of liberals – those who believe in
liberty as Mill wrote about – when they do illiberal things such as penalizing
free speech.


The irony lost upon those eager to protect
others from being offended by the exercise of free speech, particularly when it
comes to the subject of religion, is that such offence was the necessary solvent
for the reform of Christianity and the church – reforms that contributed to the
making of the modern, secular, liberal and democratic West.

In protecting
Muslims from those who offend them, the West ill-serves Islam and those Muslims
who seek its reform. Muslims need untrammelled free speech to awaken to the
awareness of how totalitarian and comatose is their culture.