Should free speech be protected, no matter what?

In this UpFront special, we debate unlimited free speech and its possible effect on minorities.

Should all speech, including hate speech, be protected? In back-to-back debates, an UpFront special on free speech. 

In part one, we delve into whether the right to free speech conflicts with protecting minorities, and if so, how democracies should respond. 

In part two, we debate whether minorities, especially Muslim communities have a particular problem with the principle of free expression, or if Islam has been unfairly targeted. 

Part 1: Debate – Is freedom of speech absolute?

Hate crimes are on the rise across the West, igniting debates around free speech. From arguments in the US about whether white supremacists should be given platforms to say bigoted things, to claims that free speech is under attack at universities worldwide, the issue has been hotly debated and sometimes politicised.

So, should free speech be protected no matter what, even if it means defending so-called hate-speech?

Glenn Greenwald, author, Pulitzer-winning journalist and cofounder of the Intercept, says: “I think it’s a really important truth to recognise that just as a matter of pragmatism, there’s no such thing as banning ideas. It has never worked. It certainly can’t work in the age of the internet. Maybe we can have an ideal world in which it’s possible to ban racism and ban the expression of Islamophobia. The opposite is true, though. When you try and do it, you turn them into martyrs, you actually make them stronger.”

“In free speech cases, what you have to do is first calculate the cost of regulating the speech in question – emotional, political, economic cost – and then calculate the cost of allowing the speech to flourish, add up the columns, see which costs more, and make your decision accordingly,” says Stanley Fish, author of There’s No Such Thing As Free Speech, and it’s a Good Thing, Too. “Freedom of speech is a value, not a principle, and it’s a value of which we must ask the question in any context, is it worth it?”

In the first part of this UpFront special, Glenn Greenwald and Stanley Fish debate whether governments can be trusted to defend both minorities and civil liberties.

Part 2: Does the right to free speech endanger minorities? 

More than a decade since the publication of the infamous drawings of the Prophet Muhammad, the Danish cartoons controversy continues to reverberate in debates on freedom of expression, the right to offend and Islamophobia.

Does the publication of cartoons mocking a religion or prophet serve a much-needed liberal and democratic purpose, or is it an insensitive attack on an already beleaguered minority group? 

Nesrine Malik, an independent columnist and contributor for The Guardian, says: “They [Muslims] feel like it is an attack on them as a minority, as a racial minority, as an economic minority, and so I think one needs to kind of fan out a little bit and see it less as an absolutist issue on freedom of speech and more about kind of the relative status of the targets of that freedom of speech.”

“We were integrating the Muslim minority into a Danish tradition of satire,” says Flemming Rose, former culture editor of the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten, which posted the cartoons. “And we were saying to the Muslims, we do not ask more of you, we do not ask less of you, but we ask of you exactly the same as we do of every other citizen and in that lies an act of recognition.”

In the second part of this UpFront special, Flemming Rose and Nesrine Malik debate whether free speech is sometimes abused, and particularly if Muslim and other minority communities have an issue with the principle of free speech, or whether they have been unjustly targeted.

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