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Lord Plant of Highfield: My Lords, this is an important debate. There is no doubt that freedom of speech and liberal democracy more generally are under attack from various kinds of fundamentalisms in the modern world. In that context, we need to be clear about the moral basis for liberal democracy and the place of freedom of speech in it. In the view of some critics of liberal democracy, that immediately puts liberalism on the back foot because, in their view, there are no deep values acting as the foundations of liberal society. Let me cite one sophisticated example of this critique from the Muslim philosopher and theologian, Professor Akhtar. His argument is that at the basis of liberalism there is, paradoxically, a type of fundamentalism; what he calls the fundamentalism of doubt. Liberals are fundamentalists. Their fundamental principle is to doubt everything. That is his view.
So why do liberals, in his view, value free speech and other democratic values? The answer, in his account, is that liberals are in fact sceptics and relativists. They do not know what the truth is, so they need free speech and other liberal values to cope with the basic axiom of liberalism that all beliefs are up for grabs. If that is so, liberalism can have no fundamental moral beliefs of its own. It is, rather, simply a coping mechanisma way of coping with doubt and scepticism. This puts liberal values on the defensive when confronted with a world view such as fundamentalist Islam, which claims to know what the truth is and has a mission to see that its conception of truth prevails. In his view, the fundamentalism of faith will overcome the fundamentalism of doubt.
I do not think that that is a true account of liberal values such as freedom of speech, but we need to be clear about the basic values of liberalism and the considerations on which a defence of free speech rests. The first is the idea that so far as an understanding of the empirical world is concernedan understanding which we acquire through sciences of all kindsadvances in knowledge require an openness of debate and dialogue to provide the context for what Karl
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Popper called the process of conjecture and refutation. If an open society is necessary for the advancement of empirical inquiry, we cannot easily constrain the exercise of free speech purely to this sort of area.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, in the sphere of morality, we have to acknowledge that there are many important values, such as liberty, equality, justice, mercy, charity, friendship, loyalty, respect for individuals and the claims of community, which are all real and genuine values. Liberals are not sceptical or relativist about the centrality and importance of such values in human life. Nevertheless, it remains true, as Isaiah Berlin constantly argued, that there is no uniquely compelling way of linking these values together in some kind of monolithic or ordered framework. We always need the freedom to debate the relative weight of such values in changing situations. Indeed, we are doing precisely that at the moment.
The weight given to particular values depends on openness to dialogue and not on assertion and will. It is vital in a diverse society within which people differ on the ways in which various goods should be weighted, that debate contributes to what the American philosopher John Rawls calls "public reason"; that is, a public culture of rational debate about values and principles and what sorts of reasons count in favour of one way of looking at values rather than another. These cannot be settled for society at large by religious or ideological authority, and freedom of speech is an essential part of public reason.
So should free speech be limited? Usually liberal thinkers have invoked the harm principle; that free speech can be limited when it causes harm to others. Critics of free speech will major on this and argue that feeling insulted and offended is a form of harm, and therefore there should be no freedom of speech to insult and offend. I think that this is a mistake. We need to distinguish between civility and law, and so far as the law is concerned, I believe that this would make limitations on freedom of speech far too subjective.
If there are to be legally enforceable limitations on free speech, they should be as capable of as much objectivity as possible. This has led liberals to espouse two conceptions of harm: harm to physical security, and the prevention of another person being able to follow his or her own conception of the good. It is argued that most people, whatever their beliefs, would regard undermining their physical security and restricting their ability to follow their most fundamental beliefs as the basic forms of harm. If this is so, the restriction on free speech could be justified by citing either or both of those considerations, and unlike insults and offended sensibilities, they are capable of objective establishment and adjudication.
It has been said in the past few days that free speech should be exercised responsibly. On the view that I have outlined, if its exercise does not cause harm, then it is exercised responsibly. However, those who make that point about responsibility argue that it should be exercised in a way that respects the belief of others. That argument seems to neglect two aspects of respect: first, that respect should be seen as a reciprocal
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relationship, and, secondly, that respect must be earned. It seems to me at least that many who demand respect for their beliefs have very little, if any, respect for the beliefs of others and how they live their lives. Respect is a two-way street, and I do not see why I should be expected to respect the beliefs of others when, in the articulation of their beliefs, they show little or no respect for other members of society.
On the point about respect being earned, I argue that, in a democratic society, beliefs earn respect if adherents to those beliefs accept that it is reasonable for other people to disagree with them; that is to say, they earn respect if they hold their beliefs in a reasonable way, recognising the right of others to disagree. As the right reverend Prelate said, it is fashionable in these post-modern times to decry the values of the Enlightenment and say that there can be no foundations for the democratic values endorsed by that movement. I hope that I have suggested, at least, that that is not the case. We need to be clear about democratic values and their defence. Abandoning the Enlightenment leads us to endarkenment, and nobody wants that.
Lord Inglewood: My Lords, like other speakers, I thank my noble friend Lady Knight for introducing this important and timely debate. If it would not have been greedy to speak twice this afternoon, I would have liked to put on record my concern about, and abhorrence of, the current excesses in Iran.
Other speakers have already emphasised how freedom of speech is central to our society, how it is one of its defining characteristics, and that it is axiomatic that all freedoms must be exercised in a manner so as not to deny that freedom to others. In that context, it operates at two slightly different levels: first, at a public level, where the state intervenes to stop racial hatred, civil disobedience and even domestic insurrection and so on; and, secondly, at a private level, through the law of tort, particularly defamation law.
Although we live in an essentially plural and secular society, we should all recognise that, in the case of religious belief, some forms of expression not only may be offensive in human terms but are more than that because they attack things that are sacramental and universally sacred. I speak as a practising Anglican, but one, I am afraid, who is no textbook example; rather, I suspect, for the benefit of the right reverend Prelate, I am an example of the "Wrong Sort". However, a society where, quite rightly, there is a distinction between Church and state, we must be clear how we deal with this phenomenon. Like the interlocutor of the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, I believe that in the last resort God and the eternal verities can look after themselves. I need them a lot more than they need me.
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One of the most important questions is how our law transfers these general principles into actual action or lack of it in any circumstance. The problem is that, as anyone who has ever held elected office knows, there is always somebody somewhere out there who objects to everything. That being the case, some test of reasonableness must be introduced into the assessment of the factsjust as in defamation cases in which it is the jury's job to determine. How else, otherwise, can we in a plural society deal with widely varying susceptibilities and beliefs? Interestingly, as the noble Lord, Lord Plant, said, it often seems that it is those who are most insensitive towards others and most intolerant who become most sensitive in respect of their own susceptibilities.
If, like me, you have stood for elected office as a Conservative in a strong Labour area, the fact that you happen to be an old Etonian, a hereditary Peer, educated at Oxbridge, a barrister, a farmer and a landowner, is inevitably gratuitously handing over to one's opponents a number of metaphorical rotten tomatoes free, gratis and for nothing, to be hurled straight back in your face. It may be unfair, but that is life. That is the world we are in and it cannot be any other way.
The world is a place of rough and tumble, just as much in the world of words and ideas as of commerce and business. Expressing ideas that others find distasteful in a manner that does not incite or attempt to incite must be a legitimate form of expression. Clearly in that context motive can be a part in defining incitement. Equally, a subsequent publication or issuing of a statement of something already said may have a different characteristic from that of its first publication.
History shows us a series of ideas that have become discredited by virtue of public debate: the divine right of kings; slavery; witchcraft; or, perhaps more recently, the concept of hereditary membership of Parliament.
There is a further and most important consideration, which anyone considering expressing a view or reporting a story should consider, particularly one that may hurt or upset someone else, even though it may be perfectly lawful to do what is being proposed. That is whether it is in the public interest and responsible to do so. Journalists, it is often said, honour that axiom more in the breach than in the observance. It is certainly an unfortunate perception; and, if true, is evidence of irresponsibility. The wider freedom that freedom of speech encompasses and is a part of, involves responsibility towards others.
In the case of the so-called Danish cartoons there should be no law forbidding their publication; but in all the circumstances it is on balance an abnegation of one's responsibilities to do so. I make no apology for explaining that I asked the Library staff if they could produce the cartoons for me. I have a somewhat old-fashioned view that it is on the whole better to inform
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oneself before forming a view and expressing it; especially in your Lordships' Chamber. They did: they obtained them from the net, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, said, poses a number of interesting problems. What struck meas other speakers have mentionedis that I did not think they were high-class or helpful cartoons.
However, my point of view, which may be considered excessively libertarian by some, is that if, as I do, one believes that freedom matters a great deal, it must mean that when the push comes to the shove it takes precedence over injured amour propre or hurt feelings.
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