Free speech and the rule of law: the red lines

Extremists often hide behind the Western ideal of 'freedom of speech' - but does this give them the freedom to hate and incite violence?

Incitement: where do we draw the lines?
James Gourlay
On 3 June 2011 09:16

For all who attempt to counter campus radicalisation the prevalence of individuals spreading extremism is the greatest foe, and an enemy which has not relented.  Regardless of the violent context of university extremism, institutions not only allow the proselytisation of hateful views to continue, but, their presence is defended.

This is a result of an overarching desire to guard the 'freedom of speech' and thus universities are often an implicit part of the problem. So far their failure to understand the severity of the threat caused by extremist rhetoric has been plain for all to see. It is a deep seated issue which requires rapid change.

To fully understand the danger created when allowing these individuals onto campuses, one must be aware of the ideas they disseminate. Take a statement made by Usamah Ath-Thahabi. Ath-Thahabi, a regular on campuses across the United Kingdom, has previously stated, “Do you practice homosexuality with men? Take that homosexual man ….and throw him off the mountain."

Abdur Raheem Green, another prominent figure within Islamic societies, also supports this view claiming that homosexuals should be treated to a “slow and painful death by stoning".  Finally, Hamza Tzortzis, another individual who is often asked to hold talks on campuses, displays his hatred for homosexuality by arguing that it should be ‘criminalised’.

When examining these views one is disgusted by their vile nature, but, most shocking is the fact that the individuals who purport these views are doing so with universities defending their right to.  This is evident in Queen Mary University's response to the criticism they received for allowing Ath-Thahabi a platform within their campus.

The university stated that, “As a university we have a fundamental commitment to freedom of expression within the law. Our adherence to this commitment may be tested by the acceptance of speakers on campus whose views we might individually regard as extreme, distasteful, or fundamentally repugnant”.

This statement displays a lack of appreciation for the damage the spreading of such an ideology can have. When people state that homosexuals should be killed this of course offends and thus fits with the freedom of speech's principle of the ‘right to offend’; which the aforementioned statement alludes to, but, this clearly goes far beyond pure offence.

People of course should be free to offend, but in the instance where views which fall deep within the boundaries of “incitement of hatred against a group of persons”; an action prohibited by the Public Order Act of 1986; are found they must be challenged. Universities must firstly consider the legality of the views that are potentially going to be broadcast on their campuses before allowing them onto campuses.

Of equal importance is the consideration of the effect these statements have on the individuals they address. Goldsmith’s University; which allowed Tzortzis and Green on campus; implements a ‘No Platform Policy’ which displays a lack of the aforementioned consideration as it allows racists, sexists, and homophobes to voice their opinions, “since these views stem from ignorance”.

 This is a ridiculous premise on which to allow extreme individuals the freedom to speak on campus. Would the university give a platform to an individual who had stated that someone should be stoned to death because they were Muslim? The answer is emphatically no, and rightly so. But this is not because it is violent but because the individuals who would spread such a sentiment are deemed not to be ignorant, whereas racists, sexists and homophobes erroneously are.

The fact that these individuals are thought to be 'ignorant' does not alleviate the fears of those they threaten, nor does it make their sentiment less violent. Hence why the existing policy of judging whether views should be disseminated on campus based on their holder's level of ignorance is gross malpractice.

Controversial opinions must always be judged on their likelihood to cause hatred, fear and violence as this is the true judge of their severity. After doing so the individuals found to be spreading views that are deemed to fit these parameters can be dealt with by the law.

The dissemination of malignant views such as the examples given here, are far too often treated as being revolting but not in fact harmful. This is a perilous misdemeanour and is the first thing that must change if the effects of extremist rhetoric are going to be combated.

The freedom of hate speech must not be given primacy as the rule of law trumps this within Western societies. The law should be correctly implemented and student well-being must be of paramount importance. When this occurs we can finally take the first tentative step away from the negligence that has dominated the response to campus extremism thus far.

James Gourlay is a Research Assistant at Student Rights: Tackling Extremism on Campuses. He tweets at @jamesg8891

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