Humanist input to Freedom of Speech at Multifaith Forum

Freedom of speech

Farnham Humanist Jennie Johnson was delighted to accept an invitation to speak at the Elmbridge Multifaith Forum on the 29th of September on the subject

“What limits, if any, should be put on freedom of speech/expression and how?”

Jennie’s full talk can be found HERE. John de Prey accompanied Jennie and on request  gave the Multifaith Forum both his report and photos. A précised version was published in the Surrey Faith Links Newsletter.

John de Prey’s report:

“On the 29th of September, in Cobham, the Elmbridge Multifaith Forum invited four speakers to present their personal views in the discussion Freedom of Expression: “What limits, if any, should be put on freedom of speech/expression and how?”

Tara Taubman, international lawyer, explained that in the UK freedom of expression is limited by “Article 10”. The main aim of this is to protect privacy. Also, there is concern for publications that might incite violence, or be offensive towards people’s religion, gender, or nation of origin. The law recognises a limit when such writing or speaking goes beyond being informative. She mentioned that employers have a duty to protect employees from harassment.

Zuymer Calihi, Mufti to Kosovan and Bosnian community in UK, said anyone about to speak should ask himself “Will it benefit or harm?” However, he said, freedom to express is vital – how else can believers spread the word of God? But you should not seek to impose your belief on others. If you argue, ego takes over and you loose your spiritual power. If a doctor prescribes too much medicine he kills the patient. He said “Jihadism” has arisen through too much freedom of speech and its misuse. Furthermore, you should not kill to send an evil man to Hell. You should gently turn him towards the good.

Jennie Johnson of Farnham Humanists said she believes freedom of expression is vital for truth and democracy, and also important for individual happiness. She supports legal toleration moderated by social disapproval but expression which intends to incite violence should be illegal. For example at a demonstration in London in 2006 against Danish Mohammed cartoons, there were banners she would defend saying “Liberalism go to Hell” and, ironically, “Freedom of Expression go to Hell”. But there were also banners saying things like “Behead those who insult Islam”. These were different as they were directly inciting violence. And indeed one man was found guilty of direct encouragement of murder. Personally, Jenny would not have gone to the London Mohammed cartoon exhibition which threats of violence have just caused to be cancelled. She does not hold with causing offence for insufficient reason. It doesn’t fit in with the humanist belief in empathy and compassion, together with the golden rule to treat others as we would like them to treat us. She also wants to build bridges between belief communities and encourage understanding. In February on the BBC’s Big Questions, a Christian said that “Humanism is a first-class ticket to a sea of wantonness and debaucher… and is generally demonic”. It is offensive to gay people and their relatives to hear it said that gays are sinful and immoral. But Jenny strongly holds that the cartoon exhibition and saying humanists are a sea of wantonness and that gays are immoral, should not be banned by law and certainly should not be prevented by threats of violence.

Hugh Bryant, lay preacher at St Andrew’s Church Cobham, said that in Christianity there is no limit to freedom of expression, except in that the third commandment prohibits blasphemy. St Paul was aware of the problem of things being acceptable to one faith but blasphemous to another when he talked about eating meat from a pagan sacrifice being nourishing to a Jew but highly offensive to the pagan. Hugh said Christians can be guided by Jesus saying “Love God” and “Love your neighbour”.

In Britain, we are easy with laughing at ourselves, but the parameters of satyr are set by social disapproval, by how much malice there is behind the humour. The Mufti pointed out that there are aspects of beliefs that are too serious to joke about. No one would accept jokes about the holocaust.

Discussion mostly centred on the conflicts between secularism and faiths. When the general view of the floor was evidently to value balance and the avoidance of extremes, Hugh said “Yes, but we don’t leave room for people who believe that God is vital”. Jennie suggested that it would be useful to invite a humanist to present the humanist view and take part in a discussion on secularism in a multicultural multifaith society. “

[John de Prey]