UCL News


Even bigots and Holocaust deniers must have their say

14 February 2006

The British media were right, on balance, not to republish the Danish cartoons that millions of furious Muslims protested against in violent and terrible destruction around the world.

Reprinting would very likely have meant more people killed and more property destroyed. It would have caused many British Muslims great pain because they would have been told that the publication was intended to show contempt for their religion, and though that perception would have been inaccurate and unjustified the pain would nevertheless have been genuine. …

There is a real danger, however, that the decision of British media not to publish, though wise, will be wrongly taken as an endorsement of the widely held opinion that freedom of speech has limits, that it must be balanced against the virtues of multiculturalism, and that the government was right after all to propose that it be made a crime to publish anything "abusive or insulting" to a religious group. Freedom of speech is not just a special and distinctive emblem of western culture that might be generously abridged or qualified as a measure of respect for other cultures that reject it, the way a crescent or menorah might be added to a Christian religious display. Free speech is a condition of legitimate government. Laws and policies are not legitimate unless they have been adopted through a democratic process, and a process is not democratic if government has prevented anyone from expressing his convictions about what those laws and policies should be. …

It is often said that religion is special, because people's religious convictions are so central to their personalities that they should not be asked to tolerate ridicule in that dimension, and because they might feel a religious duty to strike back at what they take to be sacrilege. Britain has apparently embraced that view because it retains the crime of blasphemy, though only for insults to Christianity. But we cannot make an exception for religious insult if we want to use law to protect the free exercise of religion in other ways. If we want to forbid the police from profiling people who look or dress like Muslims for special searches, for example, we cannot also forbid people from opposing that policy by claiming, in cartoons or otherwise, that Islam is committed to terrorism, however silly we think that opinion is. Religion must be tailored to democracy, not the other way around. No religion can be permitted to legislate for everyone about what can or cannot be drawn any more than it can legislate about what may or may not be eaten. No one's religious convictions can be thought to trump the freedom that makes democracy possible.

Professor Ronald Dworkin [UCL Laws], 'The Guardian', 14 February 2006