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Last Updated: Friday, 10 February 2006, 17:56 GMT
Free society still has limits
Brian Walden
By Brian Walden

Controversies over free speech and what can be published are challenges that democracies have successfully faced before.

In the dark days of January 1941 what the British longed for most was that the United States should declare war on the Axis powers. With this in mind everything that President Franklin Roosevelt did or said was reported to the British public.

So there was much excitement when, in an address to Congress, he announced he believed in a world founded upon four essential freedoms. Three of them were freedom of religion, freedom from want and freedom from fear.

But one freedom he placed ahead of all the others. To quote Roosevelt: "The first is freedom of speech and expression - everywhere in the world."

I think the earliest political idea I ever really grasped, albeit simplistically, was that in a few countries, like Britain and America, people enjoyed freedom of speech. Whereas in some others they didn't.

But throughout my boyhood I don't think anybody pointed out to me that free speech was often in conflict with other important values and was much more restricted than I supposed.

All around me, had I noticed it, was evidence that freedom of speech was a limited right and speaking freely could lead to punishment. Oswald and Diana Mosley, who supported fascism, were detained without trial. But, after all, we were at war with their friend Adolf Hitler.


A well-known Lancashire comedian of the time was George Formby, who famously played the ukulele. He was extremely popular and even performed privately for the Royal Family.

Demonstration, London
Disputes over free speech and religion are not new challenges

Anything more harmless than his jokes and songs would be difficult to imagine. His best-known song was the ballad "When I'm Cleaning Windows." One day Formby was told that his windows weren't clean enough for the BBC.

Smut had been spotted in the lyrics and he was banned from singing the song on radio. His formidable wife, Beryl, took up the cudgels on his behalf and eventually "When I'm Cleaning Windows" was deemed pure enough for public consumption and restored to the Formby canon.

Apparently the lines that caused the trouble ran:

"The blushing bride she looks divine,
The bridegroom he is doing fine,
I'd rather have his job than mine,
When I'm cleaning windows."

Freedom of speech and expression have been back in the headlines. Some Muslims are upset because of cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad printed in the Danish press last September and recently reprinted elsewhere in the European press.

Meanwhile civil libertarians are disturbed by the British government's attempts to make some intemperate religious statements illegal. I've reads articles and letters saying we're in danger of losing our traditional freedom of speech.


But remember George Formby. He wasn't allowed to tell radio listeners about the fate of the blushing bride, not because his words were seditious or criminal, but because it was thought they might offend some people's sense of morality.

Nobody is prevented from trying to peacefully persuade others that their view is the right one. But such persuasion has to be kept within civilised bounds.

Those Muslims who demand that freedom of expression shouldn't go so far as to permit blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad belong to a tradition that has existed in Western Europe long before any substantial body of Muslims lived here, except in Spain.

Christianity for centuries didn't permit blasphemy. A considerable number of people still believe that freedom of speech shouldn't be a licence to insult others, or to say things that might shock them.

Our defence of freedom of speech and expression shouldn't be half-hearted. But it's idle to pretend that it's an unabridged right. Let's take an example far removed from religious belief.

In Britain dealing in child pornography is an offence and pleading freedom of expression isn't an answer to the charge. Not many people would want the law changed. So we defend freedom of speech best, when we acknowledge that it's a cherished right, which democratically elected MPs occasionally restrict for what they believe are good reasons.

The great American Supreme Court judge, Oliver Wendell Holmes gave a classic illustration of what I mean. Mr Justice Holmes said it was legal for a man to go into a large empty field and shout "fire" at the top of his voice even if there wasn't a fire.

But if he mischievously shouted "fire" in a crowded theatre he was acting illegally. In Western society freedom of speech doesn't extend to behaving in a way that deliberately puts other people at personal risk.


Yet any legislation restricting freedom of speech should be kept to the very minimum. I think the House of Commons was right to support amendments to the government's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Indeed I'll go further and say that I doubt if such legislation ever achieves the purpose intended.

FD Roosevelt
Roosevelt promoted the importance of free speech

Juries are reluctant to convict in such cases and the courts are put in the unhappy position of trying to enforce laws that go against the grain of what many people believe are their rights in a free society. To have repellant views is one thing, to be sent to prison for them is quite another.

Whatever opinions any of us have on legislation about racial and religious hatred, we can all see that Muslim anger over cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad raises some serious issues for British society. I believe that if those issues are discussed rationally we can strengthen, rather than weaken, social bonds.

In the first place non-Muslims have to accept that Islam believes that the Koran is literally true, being the word of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. To show the Prophet in an unfavourable light is therefore a profound affront to the deepest feelings of Muslims.

The majority of Muslims accept that Britain isn't an Islamic state. It's nominally Christian, but in practice it's a secular society. There's no way Muslims can be given a specific kind of citizenship which would in any case mark them out as eternally isolated from the general currents of society.


I believe that many Muslims accept this and are not party to some of the banners that extremists carry in demonstration. Muslim friends of mine want to practise their religion and get on with their lives in a peaceful country.

There isn't a life and death struggle going on in Britain between Islam and secular society. They can and clearly do co-exist.

What those of us who aren't Muslims can do to help this is not to over-dramatise the problem. There isn't a life and death struggle going on in Britain between Islam and secular society. They can and clearly do co-exist.

In saying this I'm not trying to sweep under the carpet important differences. Some well-meaning, but in my opinion misguided, people think it's wrong even to mention such differences. I believe that's a dangerous path to take. Better to discuss the differences in a spirit of tolerance.

The central difference concerns the place of religion in life. Muslims believe that God determines truth in every aspect of human existence. Some members of other faiths also believe this. The majority don't and that's why Britain is a secular society. Neither secularists nor Muslims can bully or frighten the other point of view into submission.

Nobody is prevented from trying to peacefully persuade others that their view is the right one. But such persuasion has to be kept within civilised bounds.

The British crown has long been accustomed to presiding over the peaceful religious debates of its subjects.

There were many years of argument before first Catholics, and then Jews, were fully emancipated by parliament. As for the crown's Muslim subjects, they were treated with such respect that many of them sided with Britain in the First World War even against the leading Muslim power Turkey.

All the historic evidence shows that Muslims have been perfectly secure practising their faith under British rule alongside Christians and those of other religions.

There are growing numbers of elected Muslims in parliament and at a local level. They're elected by Muslims and non-Muslims alike and they have to serve both alike. They're living proof that Roosevelt was right to regard freedom of speech and freedom of religion as essential human freedoms.

He didn't think they were incompatible. The whole point of a free society is to demonstrate that they're not.

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

Well said! Differences exist; for us to co-exist happily we must acknowledge and respect these differences, and find a middle way that allows us to live together. We cannot, and shouldn't want to, homogenise our cultures and belief systems, and we mustn't be afraid to discuss the differences between us openly and learn to respect and cherish each other. The alternative is greater polarisation, fear and very real danger to the very fabric of our world's society. We are at a crossroads, and we could go either way.
Kelsang Jigme, Chester

I think that you have aptly summarised the situation in your article. Freedom and liberty should encourage respect and tolerance to all beliefs and that should be the cornerstone of upholding these values. Freedom comes with responsibilty and we should not get carried away by extremist tendencies.
Faisal, London

The only thing that the George Formby anecdote proves is that George Walden has a shaky concept of what constitutes free speech. Choosing not to broadcast something because of its content is not an infringement of free speech. No sensible person would, after all, consider that television's 9pm watershed is unreasonable; the BBC's choice not to broadcast hardcore pornography at 5pm should not be considered censorship. Potentially offensive religious material should be treated in much the same way. Publishers and broadcasters should be able to portray images and situations that might offend people's relgious sensibilities. They should, however, choose to exercise the same restraint about how its shown as they do with sexual explicit material.
Jacob Middleton, London

With regard to Muslim reaction to the cartoons published in Denmark, they have simply not understood the Western use and purpose of cartoons. It is well known that the message carried is allegorical or imputed. If Tony Blair is portrayed as a poodle with George Bush, it doesn't imply that he is a dog! It is notable that low key, passive protests to the Jerry Springer opera have largely been treated with disdain and ridicule and the BBC are guilty of constantly mocking Christian faith issues. It is a different story with treatment of Islam when political correctness and 'govspeak' kick in.
Ben Brown, Grantham

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