Freedom of Expression

Lars Hedegaard acquitted (again)

Recently I reported on this story – and I’m still keeping an eye out for further updates.  The recent case of Lars Hedegaard raises similar issues.  He was initially acquitted of racism and hate speech in 2011, following a controversial interview about Islam, and then, on appeal, was convicted. (Melanie Phillips has covered this extensively.) An important element in both decisions was uncertainty over whether or not he realized that his statements would be made public – it seems that he had fully expected to have the chance to check and clarify his interview rather than just have his words put straight onto the internet.

The interview which initially got Hedegaard in trouble raised issues which certainly need to be scrutinised – domestic violence for example.  But, as his own later explanatory notes indicate, there are legitimate reasons for objecting to (as opposed to prosecuting) the way he framed his concerns:

Subsequent to the publication of the above comment, I have issued a press statement, been quoted in several papers and twice appeared on national television. Here I have tried to explain that my statement: “They rape their own children” should not be understood to imply that every Muslim in the world behaves this way. It is akin to a statement such as: the Americans make good films. This does mean that all 300 million Americans are filmmakers or that all American films are good.

That doesn’t seem a fully convincing explanation – that is, I am sure he never really meant to imply that all Muslims did such a thing, but it makes it difficult to defend him against accusations of anti-Muslim bigotry.  This case raises the same problems – you don’t have to think Melanie Phillips truly believes all Arabs are savage to think she should be pulled up on it.

It’s very difficult to know where legitimate if unwelcome free speech ends and incitement/hate speech starts. In You Can’t Read This Book, Nick Cohen says:

[S]ociety is entitled to say that there should be a corner in the marketplace of ideas where journalists and their managers and owners must respect notions of fairness and balance …

That’s why I supported Hope not Hate’s campaign against anti-Muslim bigotry in the tabloid press. However – I think generally it’s better to challenge bigotry in the tone or content of words or writing rather than censor or prosecute. You don’t have to see eye to eye with Hedegaard to think it is probably right that he has now been acquitted, or agree that he has a point in feeling aggrieved that Bilal Philips, who has made a series of decidedly offensive pronouncements, has been given a platform in Copenhagen without facing any legal consequences. Making unfair generalisations about people – eg Muslims – even just framing fair points in a lurid way – may encourage discrimination and intolerance, and might conceivably act as an indirect incitement to violence.  But Bilal Phillips seems to condone (or not acknowledge) marital rape, and another cleric in Copenhagen, Shahid Mehdi, apparently claimed that women who weren’t wearing hijab were inviting rape.  It seems rather easier to interpret such assertions as justifications for violent crime. I can sympathise with people who want to set the free speech bar in slightly different places – but at least let’s be consistent.