When does fierce rhetoric become incitement?

Colin Randall considers freedom of expression in times of political crisis

Most western countries proudly proclaim a long-held attachment to freedom of expression.

Underpinning the virtue of allowing people to say and write broadly what they wish is the bold statement inaccurately attributed to the 18th century French philosopher Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Although these were not Voltaire own words but a biographer’s interpretation of his outlook, the noble thoughts will forever be associated with his name. It is echoed in the children’s adage, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never harm me”.

But the lofty principle of free speech is subject to quite enough qualification to suggest the West should think twice about lecturing other parts of the world. Intemperate, inflammatory or defamatory language can bring judicial consequences, speaking out of turn has cost many people their jobs and even groups of ordinary citizens sometimes feel entitled to silence views they find obnoxious.

When the United States presidential contender Donald Trump called off a Chicago rally because of the risk of escalating clashes between his own supporters and protesters, questions were raised about what were arguably violations of the First Amendment to the American constitution protecting not only free speech but the right to peaceful assembly.

Whatever legitimate thoughts may be held about the poisonous hatred encouraged by some of Mr Trump’s wilder declarations, and especially his insulting pronouncements on Muslim and Mexican immigrants, the protesters seemed intent on denying him his platform.

In Britain, the National Union of Students has been accused of practising censorship and intolerance by putting campuses out of bounds to speakers representing a range of opinions of which it disapproves.

And in France, there are examples galore of freedom of speech having its limits.

It is not even necessary to revisit the great offence caused to Muslims by satirical cartoons in Charlie Hebdo, though the overwhelming majority nevertheless deplored the vile murders committed falsely in Islam’s name at the magazine’s offices.

Fifteen months later, the French authorities are taking seriously allegations that four teenage girls talked on Facebook of staging a massacre comparable to the killings at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris last November.

No weapons or explosives have been found to suggest the girls, reported to be recent converts to Islam, were about to put their words into action. But whether genuinely dangerous, or just driven by reckless bravado, the youngest of the girls, aged 15, was deemed by prosecutors to be so radicalised that she should be detained while inquiries proceed. In France’s enduring state of emergency, it hardly seemed an overreaction.

Even the most liberal of governments readily recognise that freedoms must take second place to the interests of security. Perhaps it was inevitable that Mr Trump felt obliged to call off his rally, given the perceived risk of major disorder. The British students may have a point at least some of the time; extreme Islamist groups as well as politicians condemned as fascists are on the banned list. And as is confirmed by the case of the French teenagers, and the spread of online videos promoting violence and hatred, abuses of social media amply justify a need for vigilance.

If free speech is frequently suppressed on flimsy or spurious grounds, most reasonable people probably acknowledge the authorities’ duty to respond when words are not merely contentious but incite racial or religious hatred or violence. Which leads us back to that most unpresidential of White House hopefuls: if protesters breached Mr Trump’s constitutional rights, had he not already crossed the line between strongly worded rhetoric and plain incitement?

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National

Colin Randall

Colin Randall

Colin Randall is a former executive editor of The National and writes from France and Britain