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The globalisation of free speech: a race to the top or the bottom?

By Sarah Joseph - posted Wednesday, 3 October 2012


The meeting of world leaders at the United Nations has confirmed major faultlines over free speech. In the wake of the outrage prompted by The Innocence of Muslims, member States of the Organisation of Islamic Conference ("OIC") are demanding the adoption of global blasphemy laws. Other States, particularly Western liberal democracies, argue that such a move would undermine the human right to freedom of expression.

Religious Hate speech

International human rights standards already demand the prohibition of hate speech. And certainly, anti-Islamic speech, or indeed speech which targets the advocates of any religion, can sometimes constitute hate speech. As I explained in relation to The Innocence of Muslims in a post at this site a fortnight ago, I do not believe this deplorable movie is hate speech.

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Are Blasphemy Laws Allowed under International Human Rights Law?

International human rights law tolerates blasphemy laws as a legitimate limit on free speech. For example, in Wingrove v UK, the European Court of Human Rights upheld the banning of a pornographic video on blasphemy grounds.

Of course, there are limits to how blasphemy laws can be enforced. The censorship of a video is one thing. The misuse of blasphemy laws by religious fundamentalists, most notoriously in Pakistan, to harass religious minorities and moderate Muslims, coupled with the possibility of a death penalty for conviction, clearly goes too far.

Global Blasphemy Laws

I disagree with the Wingrove decision, as it seemed to indicate that the right to freedom of expression could be limited by a purported "right" not to be offended on religious grounds. The right to frankly discuss the many problems that arise with regard to many religions is essential, so blasphemy laws can constitute a grave affront to free speech.

A demand for prohibitions on blasphemy goes much further than demands for prohibitions on hate speech. Bans on hate speech prevent the incitement of hatred against particular groups on racial or religious grounds. Blasphemy laws protect religions rather than people. Blasphemy laws may prevent the mocking or even perhaps the questioning of religion. Some of the most important speech in world history has challenged religious dogma: remember Galileo.

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A global blasphemy standard would presumably extend beyond Islam, as it couldn't justifiably protect only one religion. It would not only target the execrable The Innocence of Muslims or the rantings of Pastor Terry Jones. We would be deprived of many worthy works: imagine a world without The Life of Brian.

Globalisation of Speech

Modern communications, particularly the internet, mean that the manifestations of free speech in one country can spread around the world and cause reactions, sometimes deadly, in other countries.

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This article was first published on The Conversation.



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About the Author

Professor Sarah Joseph is Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law. Her teaching and research interests are international human rights law and constitutional law.

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