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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Still another "What can you say?"

According to this story in The Guardian, a Muslim extremist in the UK was convicted and fined for burning two large plastic poppies as part of a demonstration on 11 November - Remembrance Day - last year. Emdadur Choudhury, a member of an organisation called Muslims Against Crusades (MAC), burned the poppies as part of a demo that also involved chanting "British soldiers burn in hell" during the traditional one minute's silence on Remembrance Day. He was charged and convicted under section 5 of the Public Order Act, for burning the poppies in a way that was likely to cause "harassment, harm or distress" to those who witnessed it.

It's not clear how far any memorial services were actually disrupted by the demonstrators. If they were, I can't condone it, and I think the law should be able to do something about it. But in any event, that's not what Choudhury was charged with.

I'm against this law if it's going to be interpreted in such a manner. Burning the poppies to make a political or religious point, presumably about colonial imperialism or some such thing, seems to me to be something that should be permitted. I'd say the same about burning a flag at an anti-war rally. These are not my preferred ways to make a point, but people should be politically entitled to express their point, and their emotions, in a vivid and highly provocative way. Emotional upset from something like this should not count as "distress" for legal purposes.

Likewise, I should be permitted by the law to organise an anti-Islam rally and burn a Koran or an effigy of Muhammad at it. It's not my preferred way for someone to express opposition to Islam, but that doesn't mean it should be illegal. But if I lead such a rally, I shouldn't get to lead my marchers into a mosque and disrupt whatever peaceful activities are going on there.

Before someone asks me where I draw the line, I don't think there's a clear line that must be drawn here or here. It's a matter of judgment, with different values to be weighed up. I think the state needs some reasonable discretion as to where it draws its own line to protect events from disruption (and to deter provocations to violence and the like). There may be various policy considerations and they may vary from case to case.

But I do think that burning the artificial poppies should have been legal in this instance, and on the sketchy facts in the report Mr Choudhury shouldn’t have been convicted of a crime.

We ought to be consistent about this. If we want robust protection of freedom of speech, that will also apply to ugly forms of speech and/or to the speech of our opponents.

5 comments:

March Hare said...

I am a UK citizen and disgusted by this. Both the protest and the fact he was charged. I respect the sacrifice of our troops, especially those in the 1st and 2nd Wars who didn't have a choice, but they were fighting for, among other things, the rights of these idiots to make political and religious protests.

But no, the UK is such a tolerant and accommodating place that we can't allow anyone to get upset over anything. Protect the poor dears from hearing that some people don't actually like our troops and consider our bombing of civilians in our wars of aggression to be a crime. Whether I agree with that particular view or not I want to be able to hear it and I want people to be able to vocalise it.

Incidentally, the result was a £50 fine and £15 victim costs.

James Sweet said...

Before someone asks me where I draw the line, I don't think there's a clear line that must be drawn here or here. It's a matter of judgment, with different values to be weighed up.

At a thread over at Ed Brayton's Dispatches some months ago -- which was in relation to anti-discrimination laws rather than free speech, but I think the same point still applies -- "mad the swine" made an excellent comment, to the effect that both ideologically pure positions (in that case, always allow private organizations to discriminate based on religious belief vs. never allow) ultimately produce patent absurdities in practice, and that the only viable way to deal with it is on an ad hoc basis. (mts was far more articulate, but you get the point)

The Lorax said...

If we want robust protection of freedom of speech, that will also apply to ugly forms of speech and/or to the speech of our opponents.

Actually I will argue the only way to ensure there is 'robust protection of freedom of speech' is if there is ugly speech. If you wake up one day and find no one is expressing something you find loathsome, be happy. If its been a month, then you should probably be concerned.

steve oberski said...

If you can't defend the forms of speech you find the most repellent and disgusting then you're not for free speech, you're against it.

It's easy to to allow speech that you agree with.

One of the most compelling defences of free speech I have read was by Egale Canada, a LGBT human rights organization coming to the defence of a homophobic xtian minister being targeted by Canada's "Human Rights" bureaucracy:

Freedom for all means freedom for each

It can be challenging to hear an opposite point of view. When that opinion is vehement and hurtful, it’s even more challenging to defend the right of that opinion to be expressed.

There are limits, of course, but Pastor Stephen Boissoin has not crossed them - yet.

Boissoin is the former Executive Director of Concerned Christians Canada Inc. Back in June 2002, a Red Deer, Alberta newspaper published his fiery letter. In it, he described his “war” against making schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans-identified (LGBT) people.

Boissoin called LGBT people “perverse, self-centered and morally deprived,” and said that “where homosexuality flourishes, all manner of wickedness abounds.”

The Pastor condemned the “horrendous atrocities such as the aggressive propagation of homo- and bisexuality” as well as the “psychologically and physiologically damaging pro-homosexual literature and guidance in the public school system; all under the fraudulent guise of equal rights.”

He went on to say that “war has been declared,” calling on readers to “take whatever steps are necessary to reverse the wickedness.” (Click on this short-cut to see the full letter: http://tinyurl.com/dzsg6.)

The letter is now the subject of a human rights complaint by University of Calgary professor of education Darren Lund. Winner of an Alberta Human Rights Award, Professor Lund is a champion of human rights. His years of work towards making schools safe for everyone are worthy of respect and praise.

Lund is arguing that under Alberta’s human rights legislation, Boissoin should not be able to make such discriminatory public statements. If the tribunal agrees with Lund, Boissoin could be required to apologize and/or pay compensation.

Meanwhile, the religious right is rallying around Boissoin, eager to paint him as a martyr for the cause of religious freedom. Concerned Christians is shaking the money tree, including in the U.S. where it received support from the Alliance Defense Fund. Furthermore, a fundraising dinner was held October 29 in a Calgary hotel.

They are gathering their troops to combat what Boissoin calls the “homosexual machine that has been mercilessly gaining ground in our society since the 1960s.”

For reasonable people who believe in equality and safety for all, it is easy to condemn Boissoin’s hurtful and inflammatory language. Furthermore, the temptation is strong to want to silence such an angry diatribe which might find an audience of people willing to join his war against equality.

While it is difficult to support Boissoin’s right to spew his misguided and vitriolic thoughts, support his right, we must.

If Boissoin was no longer able to share his views, then who might be next in also having their freedom of expression limited. Traditionally, the LGBT community’s freedom has been repressed by society and its laws.

Plus, it is far better that Boissoin expose his views than have them pushed underground. Under the glaring light of public scrutiny, his ideas will most likely wither and die.

In fact, his words may serve to increase public education. By more clearly seeing the ugly face of bigotry and prejudice, the need for teaching tolerance in schools becomes obvious.

MosesZD said...

So the country that told Hitlet to stick it in his jumper and weathered the blitz has fallen, much like America, into the State of Inane Bed-wetting and Hurt Feelings over silly little things like this...

Fuck, I want to move to Mars or something... The West has fallen, not with a bang, but with a wimper...