The events over the last week have raised the subject of freedom of speech here in France and in many other countries. In fact here it is a rhetorical question since we are writing, but the principle is the same. Perhaps we might even call it freedom of expression instead. In principle everybody agrees with the notion but there are quite sizeable differences between where some people believe in absolute freedom and other believe there need to be limits.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) that was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 10 December 1948 at the Palais de Chaillot, Paris is my starting point for reasons that will become clearer as I go along. Some articles are very important:
Article 1: All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.
Article 2: Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Furthermore, no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs, whether it be independent, trust, non-self-governing or under any other limitation of sovereignty.
Article 3: Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.
Article 12: No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks.
Article 18: Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
Article 19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Those will do here, but if anybody wished to see the entire declaration it is available on http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/ .
I am starting there because most of my work, although I specialise in researching childhood and children, is within the human rights arena. Those of us working in its entirety know that UN treaties, conventions and declarations are often only ideals which, despite often global or majority accession to them, are often frustratingly disregarded and the contrary is often law or practice. However, they provide a set of principles that save us all devising a far more complicated set of guidelines or values of our own.
Article 19 is particularly under the spotlight at this moment in time. The principle it advocates has no boundaries included, yet there are many people who would dispute that by saying that although limits are not expressly included they are there. At the furthermost extreme there are nations, ethnic and religious groups who have endorsed the Declaration yet absolutely do not practice what this article proposes. There are, of course, also others who reject the entire declaration and any notion of universal human rights. One might say that the entire spectrum that Article 19 entails is there, including its unconditional rejection.
So where does that put us? Well, SFN is a network of people who share it for their own, probably very diverse reasons. Whilst it is an Anglophone site, it has membership of numerous nationalities who use English as a common language. Then, it is one that is very much the product of that membership rather than its proprietors. They have shared some of their responsibility by forming an administrators group. All members of that group are volunteers without vested interests in SFN. They are required to be fair and impartial in every discussion and decision they share with Catharine and James. I am one of those people and can say that we are not perfect, fairness and impartiality are not always the easiest things to put into practice, but we try hard. The relevance to freedom of speech and expression is that where and when necessary we have to intervene, make decisions but never wish to control or censor content. That is a very hard number to call.
Personally, I love a good debate. I will always stand my ground but although I have been accused of it, I do not bully people or disrespect views held by those I metaphorically cross words with. If people are factually wrong I might well tell them so. If somebody wishes to tell everybody definitively that penguins are only found at the North Pole, then I will probably tell them that they are only found in the Southern Hemisphere. If they dispute that, I know very well somebody else will follow through to correct them, but equally somebody sharing their view may support them. However, actually bullying them into submission or dismissing opinions or saying that their views are wrong is not what I do. Nor should other people. Disagreeing and holding one’s ground is simply part of debating, whether we are right or wrong. SFN tries not to interfere with those discussions unless they get excessively aggressive, angry or just plain dirty. In short, this network is encouraging freedom of speech.
Are there limits? Well, yes there are. They are our own limits that we set and retain for ourselves but can never force others to accept. We may argue to defend them or against those of others, but the views held by others cannot be taken from them. That is dictatorship as well as censorship.
The good that has come out of the last few days is that this dialogue has been opened between people, groups of people and, up to within, and between nations. Not only the Charlie Hebdo atrocity, but also attention is being drawn to thousands of people being killed in Nigeria, a web journalist and his defence lawyer being severely punished for attempting to use their freedom of speech in Saudi Arabia and other equally unjust things going on in a number of nations, not all of them Islamic by any means. However, the good side of the freedom of expression was shown when Jews and Moslems marched together in Paris, showed common concern for our world and especially when one gave the other a flower as a gesture of goodwill and peace. The message is, after all said and done, we are only one human race sharing a small speck in a vast universe. If we share justly then that will include mutual respect which in turn includes freedom of speech and expression.
SFN espouses those values which is why I said to myself this all needs to be said.