Free speech is a universal human right

Liberty includes the right to say things that others may disagree with.

London - 25 March 2006

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell defended free speech, attacked the BNP, denounced the war on terror and condemned Islamophobia.

He was speaking at the Freedom of Expression rally in Trafalgar Square today, Saturday 25 March 2006 (text of his speech below).

Speaking after the rally, Peter Tatchell said:

"Contrary to the lies and scaremongering of the far Left and their right-wing Islamist allies, I saw no neo-Nazi British National Party presence at the rally. Speaker after speaker condemned the BNP and expressed solidarity with the Muslim community.
"There were no placards attacking Muslims or promoting fascist ideas.
"The BNP did not gain from this rally. They were isolated and rejected by it."

Two Muslim speakers addressed the rally: Sayyida Rend Shakir al-Hadithi and Ali, a Muslim refugee from Iraq.

Other speakers included the black soul singer Labi Siffre and refugees from Islamist states, such as the Iranian feminist, Maryam Namazie.

There were Muslims among the crowd. They supported free speech too.

Peter Tatchell told the Freedom of Expression rally:

"Free speech is a fundamental human right for every person on this planet. It is a right for all, not for some.

The only instances where free speech can be legitimately restricted are when people incite violence and libel or defame others. Threats and untruths diminish free speech and open debate.

Freedom of expression is not a western value; it is a universal humanitarian value that is the right of all people.

By demanding the right to free speech, we are not seeking to impose western ideas on non-western people and cultures. We are saying that everyone, everywhere has a right to freedom of expression.

This rally is about more than defending the right of newspapers to publish the Danish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad.

It is in opposition to all attacks on free speech, including attacks on freedom of expression by our own government, such as the ban on protests without prior police permission in the Westminster area. This ban echoes the way the Kremlin used to restrict the right to protest in the bad old days of the Soviet Union.

I am here because I support the right to free speech.

I am a radical left-wing Green, committed to universal human rights and social justice. Not everyone will agree with my politics, nor will I agree with their politics. That is what this protest is about: the right of people to express their opinions even if we don't like them.

As well as challenging religious-inspired tyranny, let us also say loud and clear that we defend Muslim communities against prejudice and discrimination

Let us declare that we deplore the homophobia, race hate, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism of the British National Party

That we condemn the abuses of the war on terror, such as the shooting dead of Jean Charles de Menezes and detention without trial in Guantanamo Bay

That we reject the government's assault on civil liberties and individual freedom, including its persecution and impoverishment of asylum seekers, and its plans to create a surveillance state by the imposition of ID cards on an unconvinced and unwilling nation.

Free speech is the right to urge British soldiers to disobey illegal and unjust orders to use nuclear weapons and to invade foreign nations in defiance of international law.

Free speech is the right to condemn the British army of occupation in Iraq.

Free speech is the right to whistleblow on state corruption, illegality and hypocrisy, such as cash for peerages and false claims about weapons of mass destruction.

Free speech is the right to call for the disestablishment of the Church of England

Free speech is the right to insult the Queen, the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Canterbury - even though I personally prefer to criticise rather than insult.

When it comes to free speech, I am an equal opportunities free speecher.

Free speech is the right of others to mock and ridicule me. I may not like it. It might be unfair. But that's democracy.

Some people are mischievously portraying this protest as an anti-Muslim rally. Not true.

We condemn unreservedly any attempt to demonise or scapegoat our Muslim brothers and sisters.

We stand for free speech for everyone, including Muslims - providing their speech does not diminish the rights and freedoms of others.

This protest is not about a clash of civilisations.

Both fundamentalists and progressives can be found in all faiths, politics, ethnicities, nations and cultures.

No society has a monopoly of enlightenment and tolerance.

Muslim countries like Bangladesh have produced Enlightenment icons such as the feminist writer Taslima Nasreen; while supposedly cultured nations like Britain and France have spawned the Dark Ages intolerance of the British National Party and the Front National.

In January, I challenged Sir Iqbal Sacranie of the Muslim Council of Britain when he denounced homosexuality as immoral, harmful and diseased. But I did not seek to ban him, nor did I support calls for his prosecution. I defended Sir Iqbal's right to free speech.

Sadly, Sir Iqbal did not reciprocate my tolerance.

He wants the freedom to be offensive to gay people but doesn't believe any one should have the right to be offensive about Islam.

Sir Iqbal is seeking news laws to ban the ridiculing and satirising of the Muslim faith.

My response is this:

All human beings are worthy of respect, but not all ideas deserve respect.

There is no obligation to respect oppressive ideas like Nazism, misogyny, Islamophobia, white supremacism, homophobia, creationism or any form of religious fundamentalism.

These ideas deserve ridicule and contempt.

Let our message be loud and clear:

The right to express an opinion, without fear of threats and violence, is a fundamental human right - for all people, in all places and at all times.

Free speech today, free speech tomorrow, free speech forever," said Mr Tatchell.

The statement of principle agreed by the rally organisers, supporters and speakers:

"The strength and survival of free society and the advance of human knowledge depend on the free exchange of ideas. All ideas are capable of giving offence, and some of the most powerful ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo and Darwin, have given profound religious offence in their time. The free exchange of ideas depends on freedom of expression and this includes the right to criticise and mock. We assert and uphold the right of freedom of expression and call on our elected representatives to do the same. We abhor the fact that people throughout the world live under mortal threat simply for expressing ideas and we call on our elected representatives to protect them from attack and not to give comfort to the forces of intolerance that besiege them."
Published: 25/03/2006