The Enemy of My Enemy: The Limits of Free-Speech

The Limits of Free-Speech:

“Both these individuals have engaged in unacceptable behaviour by inciting hatred against a number of communities,”

The above was the justification given by a UK Border Agency spokesman following the recent decision by the British government to prohibit Fred Phelps and his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper from entering the UK, where their group, the Westboro Baptist Church, had planned to protest the staging of the Laramie Project, a play concerning Matthew Shepherd, a student from Wyoming who was murdered because he was homosexual.

Similarly, a “threat to public order” was the reason given for the exclusion of Geert Wilders, who had planned to attend a screening of his controversial anti-Islamic film ‘Fitna’ (see Adam’s entry below).

Closer to home, last year a planned debate to be hosted by the UCC Philosophical Society featuring the holocaust-revisionist David Irving (ironically, on the topic of Free Speech) had to be cancelled in the face of security concerns. A blogger in an article on indymedia argued: “ this debate will be used by fascists to organise in the Cork area. This incident is a further vindication of our argument that giving fascists a platform is completely wrong and shows clearly that Nazis are seeking to exploit this event to spread their poison.”

More recently, a planned address by former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern at NUIG had to be cancelled due to protests by students. A statement by the “Republican Socialist Youth Movement” bragged that the protestors had: “scored a great success which saw the cancellation of a planned event at the National University of Ireland, Galway, honouring Bertie Ahern. FEE (who exemplifies the idea that education is a right, not a privilege) organized this protest in accordance with their stance that as long as fees are being introduced for 3rd level educational institutions no Fianna Fáil TD shall gain entry to NUIG.”

The right of free speech

It is commonly understood that the Right of Free Speech is not absolute. What are less commonly agreed upon are the criteria for limiting this right. Lines must be drawn, but where? The answer may not be as elusive as one might think. I propose that we solve this problem in two steps. Firstly, by accepting the arguments given for the right to express one’s opinion given by the philosopher John Stuart Mill in ‘On Liberty’, and secondly, by drawing a distinction between voluntary and involuntary exposure to opinions.

Mill gives three main arguments as to the importance of free speech, which I paraphrase here:

1. We are not infallible possessors of perfect knowledge. Silencing an opinion assumes that we know it to be false, and we can almost never be certain of this.
2. If an opinion is in error, it may not be wholly so. There may be something to learn from it, it may contain grains of truth, and it is therefore to our advantage to engage with these opinions, so that we might come closer to the truth of the matter.
3. Even if neither of the first two conditions apply, even if we know the opinion to be entirely false, asserting the truth as mere dogma is damaging to our own sense of rationality. True beliefs need to be explained and understood, and this can only be done by measuring them against false beliefs and showing exactly why some beliefs are true and others false.

Applying the arguments of Mill

Consider the four cases above. While there is certainly no real merit in any of the ‘arguments’ espoused by the Phelps clan, being exposed to the absurdity of these will in fact strengthen the beliefs of all reasonable people who encounter them in the same way watching Ray Comfort offer the design of a banana as evidence for God’s existence does the Intelligent Design faction far more harm than good (if you don’t believe me, Google ‘banana man evolution’). Even Andrew Schlafly (he of conservapedia fame) is forced to resort to implying that Phelps must be some kind of liberal agent provocateur.

As for Geert Wilders, the irony in protesting the portrayal of your religion as a violent one by calling for the death of the portrayer seems to have been lost upon certain people. Clearly this is a case where it might be possible to wade through the bigoted content of Fitna and weed out one or two kernels of truth. I say this is merely a possibility, but we cannot know unless we are able to see the film and judge for ourselves.

The case of David Irving is one which applies to Mill’s third point above. An open debate would have allowed Irving’s claims to be demolished by any historian worth his salt. Instead, silencing Irving (and Phelps, and Wilders) has the effect of creating martyrs, of stoking suspicions of conspiracy and the suppression of truth. If these truths are actually allowed out into the daylight of public discourse, only then can they be shown for what they truly are.

The protests against Ahern can be tied to Mill’s first point. Not every student is against the introduction of fees. It is a complex debate which needs to be discussed. A debate which was prevented from occurring because one group took it upon itself to decide for the rest of the students at the college that so long as their demands were not met, the freedom to voice dissent would be denied to their opponents.

Exposure to free speech

This brings me to my final point, on the need for a distinction between voluntary and involuntary exposure to free speech. Even if we accept Mill’s three points, the fact remains that it is simply impractical for all opposing views to be heard in certain contexts.

For example, students in public schools should learn about chemistry, but not alchemy, astronomy, but not astrology, evolution, but not intelligent design, and so on. Creationists frequently appeal to the right to free speech in asking for their theories to be taught alongside the scientific view. We can avoid conceding that minority views ought to be taught in these cases by appealing to practicality. Limits on time and resources necessitate that scientific or historical theories which are backed by vast amounts of evidence be taught at the expense of outdated, or unsupported views whose value lies only in demonstrating their falsity in the face of the superior theory.

Beyond public schools, where time and resources place limits upon what material can reasonably be covered, I can choose what book to read in the library, what television program to watch, what website to visit, and what lecture to attend. In a free society I am and ought to be able to use my own time and energy to inform myself about whatever theory I wish, no matter how unlikely it may be.

The line ought to be drawn, however, at the point where my actions prevent others from voluntarily pursuing ideas which are not being imposed upon me.

No Muslim is forced to watch Fitna, nor should they be entitled to prevent others from watching. No homosexual is forced to read literature from Westboro Baptist Church or attend a protest, nor should they be entitled to prevent others from doing so (nor indeed, should government officials acting on their behalf). No student of history is forced to attend a lecture from David Irving, nor should they be prevented from hearing him speak and perhaps having the opportunity to prove him wrong in public. No student of NUIG is forced to listen to Bertie Ahern, nor should they be prevented from doing so by fellow students who think that because they have already made up their minds on an issue, no further debate can occur.


There is virtually no point to supporting the notion of a right to Free Speech, if we are willing to extend this right only in cases where we agree with the ideas being expressed. To suggest that some opinions are both so blatantly false that they can be conclusively refuted, which holding that these beliefs are too dangerous to be let lose amongst the general public, is to take the arrogant and elitist position that most people are simply too unintelligent to spot absurdity when they encounter it. The fact that a large portion of the population do indeed believe certain absurd religious propositions can be attributed to the kind of dogmatic thinking (or lack thereof) which Mill is at pains to prevent with his arguments for freedom of thought and expression.

by Brian Carey


“FREE SPEECH” by Newtown grafitti is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Atheist Ireland


  1. Avatar
    ARBITRON March 11, 2009

    While I agree with you and Mills, I do see a difference between the likes of Irving as revisionist historians and neo-Nazis who actively encourage violence against Jews and homosexuals. Iriving disputes historical record, and whether it is motivated by anti-Semitism or not it is not a direct attack on Jews. Neo-Nazis “incite hatred” and their objective is to eradicate a vulnerable section of our population.

    The Phelps family are not like Irving. They say fags are evil, hated by God, should die, got AIDS as punishment, etc. This is speech directed towards a vulnerable group which is already oppressed and hated. Violent hate crime against gays – including murder – have been on the rise in the UK & Ireland. I would argue that they feed into this dehumanisation of gays and therefore their speech must be curtailed for the safety of gay citizens.

    People already hate gays – it might only take encouragement of the Phelps clan to spur someone to violent action against the gay community.

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    TomK -aZeroGodist March 14, 2009

    Lets say that racist speech is against the whole idea of free speech, at the same time we are allowed to debate and try to correct the “wrong” ideals put forward. But when a book that promotes racism or instructs its followers to murder another due to their colour, race, sex, or religion shouldn’t be allowed. After reading a certain book, that does instruct its followers to kill members that leave it’s teachings, I now believe that that book should be banned. The book of course is the source of the “threat to public order”, the Koran is a pure racist book, against one’s sex, one’s race and one’s religeous belief/non-belief. The UK-PM Mr James Brown (yes his real name) should not suppress free speech for the values/dangers of a racist-militant-cult.

  3. Avatar
    Polly March 15, 2009

    Answer to TomK -aZeroGodist says:

    Why just the Koran? Why not the Bible on the same grounds?

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    TomK -aZeroGodist March 17, 2009

    Well of course but which bible, as christianity has “EVOLVED” 🙂 by naturally selection of the best parts that fit in today (well maybe still in the 60’s -the 1860’s that is). But reading the Koran and it’s definitive stance as written in stone. (even though it did regress from allowing moderate alcohol into severe punishment.) Though there are some moderate countries, which have modernized their attitude for progress, which wouldn’t be allowed under strict Islamic law. There is one Koran one book, but Christianity has many different books all written with lawyer like language that can be read as having many meanings and in most parts the holy bable is taken as an analogy.

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    sw March 19, 2009

    the british government didn’t call for the death of geert wilders.

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    agnostic June 28, 2009

    I disagree with the argument that David Iriving is not neo-Nazi. He frequently addresses neo-Nazi meetings and has been in contact with local fascists in Cork prior to this planned speech there. Also he was not going to have been debating with ‘any historian worth his salt’, but with arrogant but under-informed students who would have nothing like his knowledge about the holocaust, thus making it easy for him to make his lies appear convincing to theperson unaware of his background and motivations, and the fact that he has actually been found by a court of law to be knowingly telling lies about the holocaust. I don’t think freedom of speech should allow someone to tell lies in order to incite people to hatred and acts of violence against vulnerable groups, as is the case with Iriving, the Phelps family & Wilders.

    Also you seem not to include the right to protest in your concept of freedom of speech – the protesters were asserting their right to freedom of speech in Cork and Galway. The idea that Ahern’s freedom of speech was denied is odd considering he was all over the media for most of his life and has no problem getting into the media even now. Conversely, students protesting against the denial of the right to education rarely get a chance to exercise their freedom of speech in a public way that will be heard by a large audience. There is no suggestion of the studentds having done anything violent, so I find it strange that you condemn peaceful protest in an article about freedom of speech.