“Shouting fire in a crowded theater” – Freedom of Speech
27th February 2009
With coincidental timing, last week the Home Office refused Geert Wilders entrance into the UK. Wilders is a member of the Dutch Parliament and famous for his anti-Islamic zealousness.
“I despise what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” – Voltaire
This quote of a commitment to free speech is at the heart of a civilised and tolerant democratic society. Free speech encourages participation in political debate not passive acceptance of policy, handed down from the law-makers. It encourages individual contribution.
However, what of the dangerous consequences of expression where other factors are more important than free speech? i.e. national security, risk to children, pornography, hate speech. Should the government employ censorship?
If censorship becomes regulated by law, will censorship encroach creativity? History is beset with instances of book burning in order to save the masses from corruption. Expression of ideas has been a catalyst for threats of torture and persecution. Would censorship replace democracy with totalitarianism?
While Wilders is well-known for his noisy right-wing opinions, some believe that by refusing him entrance into the UK has been unintentionally good for democracy. Instead of nodding and sighing in comfortable inertia, ideas to which we disagree invigorate and stimulate opinion and action. John Stuart Mill holds the opinion that disagreements arising from freedom of speech regenerates an otherwise plodding existence.
Should freedom of speech be the uncontested right of all citizens in a democracy? Or should freedom of speech be tempered with censorship of the kind Oliver Wendell Holmes indicates when there is “clear and present danger”, i.e. shouting ‘fire’ in a crowded theater.