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January 14, 2010


Luis Enrique

Why so dismissive of the practical problem? Even if you accept that there are some utterances so harmful, there's no benefit of any sort to their existence, in practice no authority will be able to identify those utterances and restrain itself to banning only those, so 'free speech' is a preferable rule. Plus there's a discovery process ... we don't know in advance what utterances are going to fall into that category. If there are penalties for saying the wrong thing, people would be reluctant to venture risky opinions and we'd destroy opinion innovation, so to speak.

Why should additional justification be necessary?

Chris Purnell

Having got it disasteriously wrong with Khomeini in the 1970's they see these clap-trap lunatics as equally corrosive. Though how anyone could not see this group as an ultra manipulative publicity seeking clique is beyond me. Seeing him smugly saying that he would just portray himself as a Muslim in future and that therefore 'Muslims would have to be banned' shows just how flimsy the basis of the banning order is. Of course it was just the governments way of getting off the hook with the delusionary 'march' but this is an own goal.


Luis is bang on.

The 'bright line' - the only non-arbitrary one I can imagine - is the line between speech and action. You can reasonably penalise (or suppress, which isn't at all the same thing) incitement to violence: that's precisely where the line is crossed. Beyond that, not so much. (Which actually means that the law already bans too much, as incitement to racial or religious *hatred* doesn't go over the line.)


Whilst we continue to have 'prats' in our Toy Parliament, I fear the situation will continue…


The problem with preventing prats from speaking seems to me to be in allocating who decides that someone is a prat.
Personally I don't trust anyone acting in private- be they a judge, or the whole house of Lords, as to do so would allow the decider to eliminate every thought opposed to their views (thus everyone who dislikes, say Gordon Brown get's classed as a prat- and banned from speaking)
If the decision is made in public, even in a dedicated courtroom, then we have de-facto freedom of speech- since the prat will have to speak in open court before he can be adjudged so.
Further- I have never yet heard anyone so idiotic as not to convey some sense, or at least some valuable information- and Mr. Choudarys and his friends do a useful job of alerting us to the existence of a certain point of view in this Country.
However- freedom of assembly is not the same as freedom of speech. Whilst I would defend the rights of people to express their opinions, and afford them the opportunity to do so, I don't see that this leads automatically to a right to gather in a group in whatever place they choose. We have long curtailed the former right of Orangemen to march where they like, as their marches were percieved (rightly or wrongly) as intended to offend, rather than express an opinion. I see no reason for Mr. Choudary and friends to go to Wooton Basset to express their opinion, when far larger audiences are available elsewhere- their object is to give offence.
I think that there is a difference between expressing an honestly held opinion which happens to offend others and expressing an opinion designed to offend others.

Timothy Almond

There's a cost in government deciding which ideas are bad just like the government deciding which products or services are bad. If government can decide that one non-violent group can be banned then the principle is established that it can decide that any non-violent group can be banned. In other words, the government is now "picking losers" in political ideas.

Now, we know that the government believes that climate change is as big a threat to our security as terrorism. So, why shouldn't it now ban groups who are "deniers" on the basis of the dangerous views that they spread, with all the potential damage that would be caused if the models are shown to be reasonably accurate?


I just want to pick up on one line of thinking in all of this which doesn't make sense.

Let's say you accept (which I don't for the record) that Choudary and his ilk are saying things which it should be illegal to say. How do you get from that to banning Islam4UK?

Let's look at this using some analogies. What would happen if the police came across an individual tomorrow and discovered that he was a member of a gang known for (say) dealing drugs (ignore for a second any inclination you might have to legalize drugs, like I do). Do the police arrest that person now that they know he is a member of a gang? No, of course not. They make a note of this information, saving it for future reference. They don't arrest people because they're in a gang, which is just an informal association of people. What they normally do is try to catch them in the act of doing illegal things, usually something like a sting operation. You can't nor shouldn't arrest Don Corleone just because he is a "Corleone".

Similarly, if Osama bin Laden arrived in Britain tomorrow, why do you think he should be arrested if the police caught him? Being a member of al qaeda? Or perhaps for organizing and masterminding terrorist atrocities all around the world? That's not a false choice by the way.

What I'm getting at is that al qaeda isn't evil because of its name. It's evil because the actions taken by its members are evil. In and of itself, there is nothing evil about the group "al qaeda".

If I joined al qaeda tomorrow (don't ask me why I'd want to), should I be sent to jail for doing so? Even if I have never expressed any desire for, or sympathy for, or anything but condemnation for, terrorism (this is a thought experiment, so assume I am such a moron that I don't know what al qaeda is)? It may be possible (it depends what I'd done) to arrest me for harbouring known criminals, but to arrest me "being a member of al qaeda"??

(Warning Godwin approaching) Was Hitler evil because he was a member of the German government? Or because of the actions he took?


Oh yeah, I meant to ask at the end of that, "So why should the group Islam4UK be banned even if the actions of it's individuals ought to be illegal?


"I see no reason for Mr. Choudary and friends to go to Wooton Basset to express their opinion, when far larger audiences are available elsewhere- their object is to give offence."

1. I you sure far larger audiences are available elsewhere? Think of the headlines since they said they were going to protest through Wooten Basset.

2. How do you know their object is to cause offence? Again, their object could be to attract headlines.

3. Why should people necessarily be offended by this protest? If a group (say Stop the War) did this, there wouldn't be so much outcry. It was supposed to be a protest honouring those civilians (it might have been Muslim civilians but that's not so relevant to my point) who have died in Afghanistan. That's fine for a protest. The only reason to say that Islam4UK can't do this, but other groups like Stop the War could, is that Islam4UK are perceived (perhaps rightly) as having ulterior, dubious motives. But so what if they do? That's one rule for us and another for them. We're basically saying, "You, because we perceive you as having extreme opinions on other occasions, can't do this protest, but others who we don't perceive that way, can".

4. That you see "no reason" for something isn't a reason to ban it. As an atheist, I see no reason in religion, but it shouldn't be illegal to be religious.

"I think that there is a difference between expressing an honestly held opinion which happens to offend others and expressing an opinion designed to offend others."

How do you know that their opinions that are designed to offend others (if that is what they are) aren't also honestly held?

If I call someone a "twat" (or far worse) because I'm trying to offend them, should I be sent to jail for ten years? Why should deliberate offense be illegal?

And how do you *know* that an opinion was designed to cause offense? Can you read minds?

David Weber

I think your own arguments are very strong.

I think one you've possibly not mentioned is the problems with prohibition to begin with. I doubt that banning a group is much more likely to prevent the possibility of its encouraging Terrorism than banning a drug is likely to prevent abuse.


For an extreme full defense of free speech Raoul Vaneigem's brilliant pamphlet is highly recommendable: Rien n'est sacré, tout peut se dire. Réflexions sur la liberté d'expression. He argues that all forms of racisism, holocoust denialism, etc should be allowed expression.

Chris brings a genuine dilemma: this case should have made everyone rethink the question seriously, including Muslim citizens -perhaps an uninteded positive outcome. Being very aware of Luis and Phill's argument (silencing the one who shouts FIRE in a crowded room... the fire could be real), I am still unconvinced, and the limits of Mill's argument seem to me very serious.

Perhaps the Spanish experience in relation to the "political" branches of ETA is useful in highlighting the merits of the consequentialist argument. After the failed peace process there was a consensus that any functioning democracy that tolerated those political parties or organization that did not condemn violence did so at its own peril. The content of the ends pursued were not an issue (in fact independentist parties have been perfectly legal even before the Spanish communist party) but their allegiance to democratic and political means. I don't see any reason to regard such legislation as arbitrary.

Equally, we wouldn't see any plausible objection to tolerating a civil organization that aims, say at converting everyone to Islam, or hegelianism or whatever ism by peaceful means. But this is not the case.


Islam4UK actively and openly said that their aim is to subvert democracy in the UK, overthrow our parliamentary sytem, target certain groups (ie the LGB community), abolish freedom of speech and impose their Sharia law upon the entire population. Right?

Now, we live in a society, I like to think.

The moment you decide that your organisation is based entirely on destroying and undermining the same democracy that allows you to be and exist in peace, then you choose to pull out of your social contract - in other words you forfeit your rights to freedom of speech.

Which is why I believe banning Islam4UK was the right decision.


Hmmm, there's another utilitarian argument that Mill used. He didn't depend on epistemological scepticism but argued instead that people lose the habit of defending truth rationally if lies are legally proscribed. Truth would then aquire the status of dogma. I'm not sure how convincing this is.

The other is your first point but I'd add the caveat that context is everything. Who cares what an unrepresentative smattering of religious fanatics believe? They can hold these views, express them, publish them for all I care. But I don't see why there's any need to allow them to parade them at all times anywhere... It's like those arseholes in America who think military deaths in Iraq are because God Hate Fags. If they want to be that mental, well hell mend them - if you'll pardon the expression. But they certainly shouldn't be allowed to picket funerals. To argue otherwise is to fetishise free speech, in my view. Maybe not so much a matter of free speech but simple public decency?


"For an extreme full defense of free speech Raoul Vaneigem's brilliant pamphlet is highly recommendable: Rien n'est sacré, tout peut se dire. Réflexions sur la liberté d'expression."

I remember very little French from school - do you know where I can get an English translation?


There are two main points. Firstly, principles that support our society are destroyed if they cannot be relied upon by those we dislike as well as those we do. Everyone has the right to a fair trial for instance, but if we deny this to anyone, even if it is for what seems to be a perfectly good reason at the time, then no one has that right any more.
Secondly, there are limits to rights where they conflict with other rights. Islam4UK is being banned, (having freedoms of association and free speech removed), on the supposed basis that their exercise of these may interfere with others right to life, (though I believe the actual basis is that our twat of a home secretary wishes to be seen to be doing something).

Right to life is pretty much the trump in right / freedom conflicts but here as in many cases it is being overplayed. The risk from Choudary and his fellow idiots is much overstated, they are offensive certainly but to justify banning them you need to show that their speech will cause physical harm beyond the rough and tumble of everyday life and that banning them will prevent this harm.

By playing the ultimate rights card in such a weak situation Johnson devalues all other rights, those that give us something to live for rather than just exist.


Alex, No English translation yet, but in a similar vein and from a situationist viewpoint, there is "The Movement of the Free Spirit", of which you can find an excerpt here, dealing specifically with religion and blasphemy:



Well, Falco there is something flawed precisely with the view of rights as ultimate trump-cards.

To claim rights as if they could exist before the duties own to the community that is supposed to protect them is clearly contradictory. Rights and duties emerge simultaneously from the political community. Outside it they are metaphysical abstractions: Taking them as absolute, immutable, and god-given, over and above social conventions is misleading.

The common denominator in a free country is not national identity or religion (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3618878/For-British-tolerance-read-indifference.html) but citizenship. You cannot cop out of your duties as citizen without undermining your individual rights to your religious or irreligious views and whatever other identity.


Can someone clarify this for me...?

Last summer, Islam4UK carried a piece online called "Sebastian Faulks on a Deathwish?":

"[Mr Faulks] cannot provide himself an excuse for not being aware of the repercussions of such careless comments, which is a great cause for concern”.

"Mr Faulks was extremely naïve for what he said and it could have some grave consequence for him”...
“He’s not the first person to insult the Prophet. You can see with Theo van Gogh and Salman Rushdie and whole host of other people that it does have those consequences."

For those people, Sebastian Faulks was "guilty" of having called the Qu'ran one-dimensional.

Forget hair-splitting and grand concepts of liberty, I wonder if you guys think that that style of "doing politics" should be allowed to carry on as normal?


"To claim rights as if they could exist before the duties own to the community that is supposed to protect them is clearly contradictory. Rights and duties emerge simultaneously from the political community."

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "the political community", (tpc), here. Are you making a distinction between tpc and the people? If so you run into several problems such as what rights should be due to anyone not of tpc. In a free country the common denominator is not citizenship but humanity, one cannot torture another because they lack a piece of paper stamped HMG.

My view of rights is that the individual is sovereign over themselves and no other. This is the source of those things that I would consider rights, they require no corresponding duty of action, merely one of inaction. When individuals then interact and form societies they may choose to pool or surrender some of their personal sovereignty but this does not make society the source of those rights.

It becomes far more problematic when you claim something as a right that requires another to have a duty to act. Such "rights", (second generation rights as they are sometimes termed), are, I feel, best described as privileges and are far from immutable. These things, the right to welfare payments or an education for instance are up to the demos of the day to decide.

First generation rights, come as part of the package of humanity. 2nd and 3rd, (group rights), gen rights are social constructs that often cause problems by interfering with the first set.

I hope the above is fairly clear and I'm sure many people would disagree. On the trump cards point though it is inevitable that there will be situations where rights conflict to some extent. My objection was that Johnson was playing trumps inappropriately.


Aristotelically speaking, I take political community or "polity" to be that which governs itself according to a constitution. However, by "people" we usually mean a nation, a tribe, or a group with a common identity, language, ethnicity or religion. So, yes I make that distinction: Living under the same polity does not imply belonging to the same people.

"In a free country the common denominator is not citizenship but humanity, one cannot torture another because they lack a piece of paper stamped HMG."

But unfortunatelly humanitarianism and respect for human rights only constrain us morally. They are, however, of no political significance unless they can be enforced within a particular state, for example as part of a Bill of Rights. Now, if the UN could enforce HR's then it would constitute a kind of political community.

To say that rights, even 1st generation rights, are human conventions that arise in society and mutual intercourse is not to say that they are arbitrary. So, I completely agree that 1stGR are universal, more or less fixed and part of our common humanity.

Our disagreement boils down to the merits of the liberal view of rights as innate and independent of the social context in which they originate. To which I was opposing the classical republican understanding of it, a mostly forgotten British intellectual tradition.


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