Freedom of expression – a categorical imperative?

We have recently seen a number of spectacular events grab the attention of the public. The Charlie Hebdo attack has particularly sparked an interest in the freedom of speech that is now moving from the streets into a more constructive debate.  

Our laws are clear
Everybody agrees that terror is bad and forgets that freedom of speech was never absolute. It is still against the law to slander people. In the Danish constitution it is a fact that we have freedom of speech. However, it is also said that limitation may be imposed by law.

§ 77 in the Danish constitution establishes freedom of speech accordingly: Everybody is entitled to publish his thoughts in print, writing or orally, however under control of the courts.

That control implies that there is a lot that one cannot express: slander, threats and offensive language towards public servants for instance. It also includes the defamation of people based on gender, religion or political views.

Rights of the individual
They are protecting the rights of humans – but not their gods or ideals. So providing you’re not offending an individual person, there is freedom of speech.  

In other countries, clauses that prohibit the defamation or criticism of the state, heads of state and religious symbols are laid down in the laws and often strictly controlled.

In countries like Denmark, we are happy to be living in an open society where the exchange of opinions and free debate are the fundamentals of the social and political balance that is the basics of democracy.

Lessons from history
Even in our history, we see that the lifting of censorship in the 18th century during the Age of Enlightenment was met with the  reinstatement of censorship when the sovereign king felt that the political elite went too far, only to have it abolished again in 1849 in § 77.

In 1797, Immanuel Kant proposed a thesis about the categorical imperative and thereby urged the civilized world to act in accordance with the general good.  

Out of context and touch
When we listen to the present debate, it is as if somebody forgot that.  Many want to show their solidarity with Charlie Hebdo through an out-of-context publishing of cartoons, which to many of Muslims are an offence.

If we want the Muslim world to move into the 21st century, it would be wise not to offend the believers of the prophet. The few fundamentalists, terrorists and mad believers should be mercilessly rooted out, but not by accusing progressive Muslims of medieval darkness when they are really trying to adapt to the modern world of tomorrow. 

In the future world, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Atheists shall live together in mutual respect. Long live the categorical imperative.