Brian Johnstone. The right to freedom of speech.

Jan 21, 2015


The recent murders perpetrated in France have been rightly condemned by all people who take seriously morality and human rights. However, the accompanying discussion of the right to freedom of speech has reflected different points of view. For some the right to freedom of speech means the claim to be free to say whatever one wants to say, whether this injures the rights of others or not. This view can justify any kind of remark from adolescent attempts to shock to the inane “sledging” in which our politicians so frequently indulge. The right to freedom of speech as a right has meaning only in the context of justice.

Does it make sense to claim, as Amanda Vanstone does, that we cannot realistically support Charlie Hebdo and not support Brandis’ contention that everyone has a right to be a bigot to express that bigotry? (The Age, Monday, January 19, 2016, p. 16). Justice would require that we construct and support the social and legal institutions that are needed to protect journalists from violent attacks. But justice does not require us to accept whatever an individual or group might want to say.   Justice clearly does not require us to accept the inflammatory rhetoric of the propagators of jihad. A bigot is defined by the Concise Oxford Dictionary as one who holds some view irrespective of reason and attaches disproportionate weight to that view. Other dictionaries add to the definition intolerance of other views. Since the bigot is by definition irrational in the views he holds, he cannot ask rational persons to listen or to take any notice of what he says. Similarly, he cannot demand that otherwise tolerant persons and communities tolerate his own intolerance; he has set himself outside the tolerant community.   The appropriate sanction for the bigot is to ignore him since he has declared himself immune to reason and to vote against him if he, or she, should seek election.

The statement: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” has been cited frequently in connection with the recent events. The words are often attributed to Voltaire, but Voltaire did not say this. To accept this literally, would mean declaring oneself ready to defend to death the right of the jihadi to continue his rabid discourses. To better understand the right to freedom of speech it is worth recalling Voltaire’s own campaigns. A most notorious case was that of the French Protestant Jean Calas. Calas was falsely accused of murdering his son in order to prevent his converting to Catholicism. After being tortured, which included “water-boarding,” Calas was condemned by the court of Toulouse to death and tortured to death by being broken on the wheel. Voltaire took up the case and defended Calas. The verdict was eventually overturned. In 1765 Calas was posthumously exonerated of all charges. This was a genuine exercise of the right to freedom of speech on the part of Voltaire. The basis of the right to freedom of speech is an obligation in justice to use speech in defense of the violation of the rights, those of others or one’s own rights in justice. The assertion, “Everyone has a right to be a bigot,” is rightly rejected as nonsense.

The recent gathering of European leaders in Paris was no doubt a genuine gesture of solidarity with the victims and a protest against violence. It was also a manifestation of commitment to freedom of speech. It is easy to proclaim one’s support for this freedom; but such proclamations are empty unless one uses freedom of speech on behalf of justice. For example, none of the three, France, Britain or the U.S.A., have an unblemished record on this. Both the French and the British governments have suppressed freedom of speech. The most egregious examples have been in relation to torture, which both governments and their agencies have condoned.

The practice of torture and killing carried on by French officers in Algeria during the conflict that preceded Algerian independence was documented by the French-Algerian journalist Henry Alleg in his book La question. When the book was published French authorities banned it. The celebrated 1966 film The Battle of Algiers that depicts the torture carried out by French commanders Massu and Aussaresses was banned and shown uncensored only decades later. President Hollande has called colonial rule in Algeria “brutal and unjust” but did not apologize for its violations.

Aussaresses taught his torture methods throughout the world. The notorious U.S. Phoenix Program in Vietnam applied the French tactics of interrogation, torture and summary execution. He also instructed the Chilean secret police under Pinochet. Unlike Aussaresses, his commander in Algeria, Massu eventually abandoned his defense of torture and urged the French government to condemn its use in Algeria. Former French soldiers admitted that the torture they practiced had produced a mass of misinformation and that the lives they may have saved were far outnumbered by those taken by the new terrorists they created.

In 2013 the Guardian revealed that the British government was still concealing secret government files from the closing period of colonial rule. These included documents concerning the mistreatment and torture of Kenyans suffered during the Mau Mau insurgency. The foreign secretary William Hague promised that these documents would be declassified and opened to the public. Elderly Kenyans were trying to sue the British government for compensation.

The files that were withheld are part of a cache of documents that were hidden in a secret archive of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This was in violation of the laws that govern the handling of official papers. Hague ordered an inquiry and promised disclosure.

He told MPs: “I believe that it is the right thing to do for the information in these files now to be properly examined and recorded and made available to the public through the National Archives. It is my intention to release every part of every paper of interest subject only to legal exemptions.” The documents were not released. The Foreign Office held back the documents, claiming a legal exemption based on a clause within the same law that it broke by maintaining the secret archive in the first place.


The mistreatment and torture was revealed in a book by Caroline Elkins in a book published in 2005 entitled Imperial Reckoning, the Untold Story of the British Gulag in Kenya. Eventually, in 2013 a judge compelled the Foreign Office to release its documents. The British government made an unprecedented apology and agreed on a settlement. Each surviving victim received about $4,000. Elkins reported that the official documents confirmed, in explicit detail, the accounts of victims, both male and female, that she had collected. There was “forced sodomy with broken bottles and vermin and snakes and just horrific, horrific things,” she says. “So not only was it absolutely wrenching to read these, but it was also validating on so many levels and particularly that the British government had been calling them liars,” she says, “All the while sitting on the evidence proving that they were actually telling the truth.”


The U.S.A., the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture is an historically significant example of the exercise of the right to freedom of speech by a government body. A 525 page portion published on December 9th. 2014 included key findings and an executive summary. However, the rest of the document remains classified.   It will be interesting to see whether a fuller publication will ever follow. Governments have seldom been exemplary practitioners of freedom of speech.

Voltaire would have found an appropriate pungent phrase for this kind of official behaviour regarding freedom of speech. Caroline Elkins and others like her have taught us what freedom of speech really means.


Brian Johnstone is a Catholic priest who taught moral theology in Rome for nearly 20 years. Currently he teaches at the Catholic University in Washington.


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