Defending speech against the chill

In a few posts lately, I have connected the apparently unconnected incidents of the riots and deaths over the alleged offense of the Mohamed cartoons, the David Irving imprisonment over Holocaust denial, and the suspension of Mayor Ken Livingstone in London over an offensive insult. In today’s Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash writes an eloquent column that also ties together these threats to chill speech under what he calls the “creeping tyranny of the group veto.” And he adds one more case, a story that has been getting much attention here in the U.K.: The bravery of a teenager to stand up against animal-rights fanatics and to stand for research and science, which has led to counterdemonstrations in favor of reason. Ash writes after watching this counterprotest in favor of an animal-research lab at Oxford:

…I was proud of the demonstrators who were reminding my university what, at best, it is still about: the pursuit of truth and the defence of reason. Protests against student loans or higher rents – these we expect. But here were students turning out on a chilly Saturday morning to stand up for science.

At stake was much more than the particular issue of using scientific tests on animals in order to save human lives. For a few minutes, Mansfield Road, Oxford, was at the front line of a new struggle for freedom that is being fought in many different places and guises. These days, the main threats to freedom of thought, freedom of speech and freedom of association no longer come from the totalitarian ideological superstate that inspired George Orwell to write his 1984…. That totalitarian horror still exists in places like Burma, but the distinctive feature of this new danger is the creeping tyranny of the group veto.

Here the animal rights campaign has something in common with the extremist reaction to the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, as seen in the attacks on Danish embassies. In both cases, a particular group says: “We feel so strongly about this that we are going to do everything we can to stop it. We recognise no moral limits. The end justifies the means. Continue on this path and you must fear for your life.” …

If the intimidators succeed, then the lesson for any group that strongly believes in anything is: shout more loudly, be more extreme, threaten violence, and you will get your way. Frightened firms, newspapers or universities will cave in, as will softbellied democratic states, where politicians scrabble to keep the votes of diverse constituencies. But in our increasingly mixed-up, multicultural world, there are so many groups that care so strongly about so many different things, from fruitarians to anti-abortionists and from Jehovah’s Witnesses to Kurdish nationalists. Aggregate all their taboos and you have a vast herd of sacred cows. Let the frightened nanny state enshrine all those taboos in new laws or bureaucratic prohibitions, and you have a drastic loss of freedom.

Ash argues that direct incitement to kill or commit violence deserves prosecution; saying something offensive does not. For someone to say ‘kill the Jews’, or ‘kill the Muslims’, or ‘kill the Americans’, or ‘kill the animal experimenters’, and points to particular groups of Jews, Muslims, Americans or animal experimenters — is one matter. Saying something that offends these groups and, they think, justifies their violence is not incitement.

So, Ash concludes:

That’s why, of all the recent high-profile cases where free speech has been at issue, that of the London-based hatepreacher Abu Hamza is the only one where I feel a criminal conviction was justified. Not because he was a Muslim rather than a Christian, a Jew or a secular European. No. Because he was guilty of incitement to murder. This is the line on which we must take our stand. Facing down intimidation, backed by the threat of violence, is the key to resisting the creeping tyranny of the group veto. Here there can be no compromise.