Incitement to violence should be banned. However, it should be narrowly defined. If you lead an angry mob to my house and shout: “Let’s kill Robert Guest”, that qualifies. If you hate something I’ve written and tweet “Robert Guest is an idiot and I wish he were dead”, that is a disagreeable thing to say but it should not be illegal, because you’re not seriously expecting anyone to harm me.
The test is: does the speaker intend to encourage those who agree with him to commit violence, and are his words likely to have that effect in the near future? If not, it’s not incitement to violence. So, for example, if you say something offensive about me and I react by smashing a window or punching you in the face, I’m the one whose conduct should be illegal, not you. Other people’s words are never an excuse for violence.
We once summarised our views on free speech with four short, robust rules: “Never try to silence views with which you disagree. Answer objectionable speech with more speech. Win the argument without resorting to force. And grow a tougher hide.”
Trying to prohibit speech on the basis that someone in an audience might feel hostile about someone else and might go do something is not justified.
There was once a time when you could be put to death for saying the wrong thing about Christianity. About a mile from my home in England is a memorial to seven Protestants who were burned at the stake in 1521 for heresy. But these days the biggest fears concern the discussion of Islam.
In 1989 Iran’s theocratic ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, called on Muslims everywhere to kill Salman Rushdie, a British writer, for a novel that the Ayatollah claimed insulted Islam. (It is highly unlikely that he read it.) Since then, some radical Islamists have decided that it is their duty to murder people who are rude about their religion. Most Muslims don’t take this view, but it doesn’t take many violent zealots to chill discussion. Tim Garton Ash, in his book “Free Speech”, calls this the “assassin’s veto”. It is very effective. When the creators of “South Park” wrote a satirical musical called “The Book of Mormon”, Mormons took it in good humour. But no one would dare to stage such a production about the Koran.
Could you imagine the death toll if someone did a satirical musical based on the Koran!
Some governments want to see a ban on insulting religion written into international law. This would be a terrible policy. A religion is a set of ideas. It should be open to debate and satire, just like any other set of ideas.
Couldn’t agree more.