"I may be wrong and you may be right, and by an effort, we may get nearer to the truth." (Karl Popper)

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Ronald Dworkin on free speech

In today's new edition of the New York Review of Books, Ronald Dworkin, a professor of law at NYU and UCL, discusses on the the fallout from the "Muhammad" cartoons earlier this year. Dworkin is an interesting and provocative writer; his earlier works Taking Rights Seriously, A Matter of Principle and Law's Empire have become recognised as among the major works of modern legal philosophy. His "right answer" thesis alone occupies a seminal place in late 20th century legal thought. I disagreed with the last article of his I came across - a rather excitable warning as to the dangers of appointing Samuel Alito to the supreme court. But today's piece I go along with.

With regard to the cartoons, I argued that free speech must encompass the right to express ideas or opinions that may, or indeed necessarily, insult others' beliefs. At the same time, I thought discretion had a role to play. Newspaper editors therefore, I thought, were write to hesitate to publish such material after the violence and riots. But I was never entirely happy with that conclusion. Dworkin makes the argument that, since the violence was mostly manufactured - remember it took place four months after the publication of the cartoons in Denmark - "keeping the issue boiling by fresh republications would actually serve the interests of those responsible and reward their strategies of encouraging violence." I tend to agree. But then, he goes on:

There is a real danger, however, that the decision of the British and American press 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 Blair government was right after all to propose that it be made a crime to publish anything "abusive or insulting" to a religious group.
This is exactly my fear. The cardinal rule in such disputes (and if Jean Baudrillard is even close to being right, there are more such flashpoints to come), though, is the one put forward by Dworkin, namely that:
"religion must observe the principles of 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."
P.S. On a related note, philosopher Andre Glucksmann draws a line between criticising a religious faith and disputing historical facts, such as the fact that the extermination of Jews in Europe during the Second World War took place. And Sonia Mikich demands: "that Hamas, the spokesman of the French Muslims and the Director of the Al-Azhar-University apologise to me. Otherwise I will never spend a holiday at the Taj Mahal, I will call for a boycott of Palestinian fruit and I will set the embassies of Tunisia, Qatar and Bangladesh on fire."


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