Speech is free only on a mountain top; all else is editing... [The turbulence] can only feed the appetite of government to restrain free speech where it really matters, as in criticising itself... If important institutions, in this case the press, will not practise self-discipline then governments will practise it for them...The best defence of free speech can only be to curb its excess and respect its courtesy.So says Simon Jenkins in a craven piece in today's Sunday Times. Here's a short version, in my own summary, of its central message...
Publication of the cartoons threatens free speech. By ignoring prudent self-restraint, it threatens free speech via the likelihood that it will provoke restrictions from those who govern us (the people against whom we really need the free speech so that we can criticize them). To defend free speech we mustn't be excessive in the use of it.
Thus Jenkins keeps in touch with his liberal credentials by being against government restriction of free speech; but he protects it at the cost of saying that we must curb it voluntarily. Note that this is not at all the same as the point, which I myself have now made twice, that we can uphold the right to free speech while disapproving of the actual uses of that right which others might make. This is merely noting the obvious, and indeed the inevitable: since the right is one of freedom, it has built into it that there will be differences amongst those who enjoy that right, as to what are good and what are bad uses of it. Jenkins is perfectly entitled to the judgement that publication of the cartoons was a mistake. To lay down as a general rule however that, while criticism of government is fine and dandy (which it is), there should be a curbing - self-imposed - of speech, writing or imagery that offend the sensibilities of the religious (and, by implication, anyone else who is easily offended) is a defence of free speech at rather a high cost. Leave aside the question why it should be Simon Jenkins's particular judgement of what freedom of speech is most importantly required for - to criticize government rather than to challenge religious institutions, beliefs or practices - that prevails; he is 'defending' freedom of speech by way of self-amputation of a whole, enormous area of it. He is also shifting the responsibility for attacks on freedom of speech from those who actually do attack it (governments when they do, those responding to the exercise of free speech by threats of murder) to those who have done no more than exercise it, even if Jenkins judges that they have done so unwisely.
A footnote. Simon Jenkins again:
What Muslims did not expect was that admission... required them to tolerate the ridicule of their faith...Accepting ridicule of our most cherished beliefs is a price everyone else in a secular democracy has to live with. And there's more in Jenkins's article of the same lamentable kind.