Free Speech gets everyone talking (again)

Two stories today provide a pretty good illustration of the whole debate about freedom of speech. Very handy. The Mail reports that Brighton becomes first city to ban rap music that offends gays (their headline). While the Guardian reports Trial of publisher revives row over Turkish 'insult' law (also their headline) -  the trial of a book publisher in Turkey for insulting Turkishness.

If I were a teacher, Id do a lesson about free speech based on these two stories. The big question: where do you draw the line? Freedom of expression is an incredibly important human right that underpins all the others, but at what point does something become so offensive, or dangerous, that a government is entitled to step in and restrict it?

And whats the difference between the two stories?

Well, the first difference is that the Mails story isnt strictly accurate. Brighton City Council has actually banned music which incites hate crimes. As No Rock and Roll Fun informs us, the city will refuse licences to venues playing music which incite violence and this could be racist, homophobic or religious. And of course they dont specify rap music much of the debate has been about incitements to kill gay people in the songs of Dancehall stars like Buju Banton and Elephant Man, but it could equally be any genre of music (racist trance, anyone? Not in Brighton.)

Theres a big comment stream on the Mail site so you might want to point out their error.

In Turkey, Ragip Zarakolu is facing up to three years in prison for publishing a book by George Jerjian, a writer living in London. The book, The Truth Will Set Us Free, is about his Armenian grandmother who survived the early 20th century massacres of Armenians thanks to an Ottoman soldier and reportedly aims to promote reconciliation between Turks and Armenians.

Hes being prosecuted under Article 301 of Turkeys Penal Code, which criminalises insulting Turkishness. Its vague wording has been exploited by nationalists to restrict the free speech of writers and academics - most notably Nobel prizewinning author Orhan Pamuk and prevent discussion of the alleged genocide of Armenians in Turkey at the start of the twentieth century.

To me this debates pretty clear cut. Words which incite people to kill or hurt others fall on the wrong side of the free speech debate. Discussion of history and ideas, however offensive that might be to some people, doesnt. Its relatively black and white, and international law reflects this. But, if you followed the whole story of the recent Oxford Union debate with the head of the BNP and the holocaust-denying historian David Irving, there are some interesting grey areas in between.

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