Shashank Joshi at the Sunday Times, on the West’s weakening defence of free speech. It's behind the paywall, so here's a chunk:
Four years ago Harry Taylor walked into Liverpool John Lennon airport and left “anti-religious” cartoons — some from Private Eye — in the multi-faith prayer room. He was handed a six-month suspended prison term for causing distress. The prosecutor in that case told the jury: “You are 12 tolerant British people who know what freedom of speech is all about.” In the event, it turns out they didn’t have the slightest idea of the concept.
This is a good time to revisit that incident. Earlier this month some hardline Egyptian clerics, stumbling across a crude piece of Islamophobic agitprop on YouTube, decided, curiously, that the best way to show their outrage was to broadcast it on their television station. As riots unfolded Salman Rushdie — no stranger to manufactured controversies — released his memoirs, warning that the only proper response from the West was to declare starkly, “We live like this.” But do we really?
If you sift out the sound and fury of the past weeks you will find a more thoughtful line of attack from the Islamic world. As a columnist in Pakistan’s respected The News International paper put it: “There exists no absolute right to free speech, expression or action anywhere in the world,” and so “the hypocrisy and double standards are all too obvious in the West”.
Indeed, the campaigning organisation Index on Censorship recently made a persuasive case, focused on Europe, that “people in democratic countries find themselves increasingly subjected to restrictions on free speech”. What’s a little more restriction for the sake of global harmony?
Over the past week many states at the United Nations general assembly — most of them with appalling records on free speech — have been pushing for a global blasphemy law to this end. They have argued this is the only way to resolve the hypocrisy. But it is not.
The solution is to dismantle the existing restrictions — to level the playing field and make it clear that freedom of speech is not a term of art designed to exclude specifically Muslim icons and values from protection. Free speech should indeed start at home.
Two years ago, why did we allow the Advertising Standards Authority to ban a satirical picture of a pregnant nun simply because it was “a distortion and mockery of the beliefs of Roman Catholics”? Why was France’s Catholic Church granted an injunction against a parody of da Vinci’s The Last Supper in an advertising poster on the basis that it was “a gratuitous and aggressive act of intrusion on people’s innermost beliefs”? Do we wish to live in a society where an arm of the state inventories the contents of our soul?
Let’s move on to our absurd prosecutions based on social media postings. In March a student was sentenced to 56 days in jail for a “racially aggravated public order offence” after abusing Fabrice Muamba, the footballer. This month a teenager was convicted for a “grossly offensive message” about dead British soldiers. But why is it illegal to be an obnoxious boor? ...
These are not the only troubling restrictions. In Europe, why should Holocaust and other genocide denial laws stand? Citizens are perfectly capable of policing bigots through diligent scholarship and public argument, rather than legal censure. Then, of course, you have our stultifying British libel laws that impinge even on vital scientific debate, let alone less decorous speech.
Many reasonable people around the world see us as hypocrites and they have a point. It is difficult to persuade Muslims in Egypt or Pakistan that vulgar insult to the prophet is protected as free speech in the West, when we are seemingly happy to criminalise, selectively but generously, offensive speech and expression on the absurd grounds of “alarm or distress”. We don’t have too much free speech in Britain; we have too little.
We should start by scrapping the clause of the Public Order Act that prohibits “insulting words or behaviour”. Britain should also build an international coalition against the countries agitating for a global blasphemy ban.
Above all, we should remember this is not about persuading others. This is about consistency in the bedrock principles of a self-confident liberal democracy.