Editorial: The price of free speech

Last updated 05:00 21/09/2012
film protest lebanon
Reuters
An anti-Islamic film has provoked violence and protests across the Muslim world. Such offensive pieces of propoganda are the price of free speech.

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OPINION: The anti-Muslim movie blamed for the wave of violence sweeping across the Muslim world is an appalling piece of propaganda. The work of a convicted conman, it is utterly without merit - artistic, historical or intellectual.

The same might  also be said of the grotesque caricatures published  by the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo depicting the prophet Mohammed in a range of demeaning positions. They are offensive, insulting and designed to provoke.

Neither, however, is reason for the murder of innocents, the storming of embassies or the further propagation of hatred. Perhaps the most shocking of all the images seen since United States ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens was killed in an attack linked to the movie was that of a small child at a protest in Sydney holding aloft a sign bearing the words: ''Behead all those who insult the Prophet.''

That is not the Australian way, it is not the Western way and it should not be the way anywhere. As one Australian politician observed: ''Kids of this age should be playing hide and seek, not calling for jihad or beheadings.''

Innocence of Muslims, the backyard movie produced by American-Egyptian Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, is purely a work of mischief designed to provoke exactly the reaction it has received.

There may have been a serious point to the Charlie Hebdo caricatures - that free speech is so important, citizens of Western societies cannot allow themselves to be cowed into silence by the threat of violence.

If so, it was a particularly offensive and dangerous means of making the point.  As the famed American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes noted, there are limits. Free speech does not entitle a man to falsely shout ''fire'' in a crowded theatre. However, individuals must be free to challenge prevailing orthodoxies even when doing so causes upset. It is the way societies advance.

Four hundred years ago the Catholic Church insisted that the universe revolved around the Earth. For daring to argue otherwise, Galileo was tried for heresy, sentenced to house arrest and forbidden to publish his work. However, the scientific advances he made have improved not just the lot of Westerners, but of everybody in the Muslim world who uses a mobile telephone, flies in an aircraft or uses 101 other modern devices.

Freedom of expression is a precious tool.  It is a means of debunking superstition and ignorance, puncturing pomposity and keeping the rich and powerful in check.

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In a perfect world it would always be used responsibly and respectfully. But no society can be accountable for the actions of every individual all of the time. The price of free speech is that it will sometimes be misused to cause offence and hurt.

However, the way to deal with that is not to burn and bomb but to hold up to  scrutiny the actions of those who set out to foment mischief. Nakoula's movie is not a commentary on Islam but himself. The Charlie Hebdo cartoons do not reflect poorly on believers in the Muslim faith but on the puerile minds of those who drew them.

- The Dominion Post

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