Free speech and free trade

Dateline 24 February 2006

Some cartoons are printed in Denmark which many millions find offensive. People riot in Europe and the Middle East. The Syrian government participates in an attack on the Danish embassy – technically Danish territory, and therefore an act of war against the NATO alliance, including the USA.

A British ‘historian’ visits Austria, seventeen years after telling an audience there that the Auschwitz gas chambers did not exist, a view he has since retracted. He is arrested, convicted of holocaust denial, and sentenced to three years in prison. Muslims, understandably, suggest that the western commitment to free speech is selective.

A company registered in Dubai buys a British company that manages the commercial affairs of several American ports, Congressmen of both parties object. Democrats who have opposed racial profiling of airline passengers, claim it is unacceptable for any Arab company to invest in American ports. Republicans who have championed free trade, claim this is a cross border merger too far.

The arguments used by the opponents of freedom are different in each case. Mostly, people are sincere. But wrong.

Muslims regard the Danish cartoons as heretical, and insulting to their religion. Others take the view that it is foolhardy to needlessly offend. Even in America, freedom of speech is not absolute. It is well established that something as irresponsible as falsely crying “fire” in a crowded theater is very dangerous. Isn’t needlessly offending Muslims dangerous too?

David Irving knows perfectly well that the holocaust was very real. His purpose in denying the gas chambers is to claim that Hitler was not personally responsible for the millions of deaths. Instead, he claims that individual camp guards ordered some of the deaths and others – including Anne Frank’s – were from disease, and therefore no-one’s responsibility. He sued for libel an author who claimed that he deliberately falsified the evidence for ideological purposes, and lost.

Supporters of Austria’s law claim that denying the holocaust leads inevitably to violence.

Violence is also the theme of Americans who oppose the takeover P&O (a British company) by Dubai Ports Worldwide. Does it make any sense to subcontract America’s security to Arabs in the middle of the War on Terror?

Yet, no matter how well-intentioned, these arguments are utterly flawed. Falsely crying ‘fire’ is speech designed solely to create needless panic. Advocating views or making jokes that will offend people are an essential part of debate. Debate, and not its suppression, is what will lead to the discovery of truth.

P&O manages the commercial side of ports, not their security. No-one is proposing to move America’s ports to another country. They will still be governed by American laws and subject to the security processes of US Customs and the Transport Security Administration – unfortunately.

People have rights. They have the right to opinions – even wrong ones. They have the right to mock others’ opinions – even deeply held ones. People have the right to their property – which means the right to sell it to other investors.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees freedom of speech in the preamble and the right to own property in Article 17. It describes the rights as ‘inalienable’ and, obviously, ‘universal’

Governments all over the world, including Austria, Syria and the US, are committed to the Declaration. It is time to respect the rights it promises.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 24 February 2006

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