Freedom of speech on long decline

Brian Jones
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All those pictures in the news of devout Muslim protesters torching cars, burning American flags, hurling rocks and chanting slogans of solidarity with the late Osama bin Laden — in Sydney, Australia, of all places — can leave viewers wondering whether it’s real or if it was scripted by the lads from Monty Python.

The famed British comedy troupe had notable skill depicting an insane world.

The hysteria and rioting and murdering in multiple countries this week — all because of offence taken at a movie — is a reminder that human progress is neither linear nor assured.

Readers of certain maturity may vaguely recall that the Western World almost tipped back into the Dark Ages in 1979, when Monty Python released “Life of Brian.”

It was blasphemy and heresy and apostasy, some religionists claimed loudly and angrily, and it was easy to imagine that if the rule of law hadn’t held them back they would have gladly burnt the Monty Python players at the stake.

Fortunately, the 20th century prevailed, and the controversy did not advance beyond froth.

Eventually, the majority remembered that in Canada, the U.S., Britain and a few other countries, the fine print said something about freedom of speech.

And once people actually saw the movie, they could respond to critics, “But it’s brilliant satire.”

It has been more than 30 years since I saw “Life of Brian,” and “Innocence of Muslims” hasn’t yet played at the Avalon Mall, so it’s not possible to offer a mini-review of each.

The former isn’t often available on late-night cable and the latter is being panned from Indonesia to Iran, but even so, the off-screen repercussions are instructive.

Yet again, we see that even highly educated, incredibly powerful people are unwilling to publicly defend pure freedom of speech, period.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was on a news clip about the “Innocence” imbroglio.

It might have been a bit part in a Monty Python skit.

It was hard to tell.

She was reassuring rioting Muslims that the movie that had so moved them was bad and awful and downright terrible, and decent people in the West shared their pain.

She echoed a common chorus — in news reports and commentaries — that “Innocence of Muslims” is very low-rate, made by people far outside mainstream Hollywood. Just in case anyone missed the point, some news items made sure to refer to the producer’s fraud conviction and probation.

Not top-drawer

Judging from the movie stills that have circulated in the media, the movie does indeed look tacky, and probably lacks the skills displayed onstage during any high school drama.

One online commentator found the perfect adjective: “cheesy.”

None of this matters, of course. Freedom of speech exists for the talentless and obnoxious equally as much as it exists for the brilliant.

What Clinton should have said when the cameras were on her was, “In our culture, we have freedom of speech. People are allowed to say things that others will disagree with and object to.”

Clinton’s approach reflects a change that involves far more than an obscure movie.

There is a highly unsettling habit among too many politicians these days to vilify those who dissent or disagree. (Fill in your favourite local example here.)

Freedom of speech still exists, of course, but apparently only if you’re decent and respectful, and show proper deference to those in authority or to those who might be offended or to those who might go on destructive, homicidal sprees.

At some point, it will stop being freedom of speech.

We might not be there yet, but we can see a sign in the distance.

Brian Jones is a desk editor at The Telegram. He can be reached at

Organizations: The Telegram

Geographic location: Sydney, Australia, U.S. Canada Britain Indonesia Iran Hollywood

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Recent comments

  • kafantaris
    September 22, 2012 - 11:16

    John Stuart Mill proved long ago that the benefit of freedom of the press is that it assures the continuing growth and relevance of our most cherished institutions: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing [us.] ... If the opinion is right, [we] are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, [we] lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

  • Carl
    September 21, 2012 - 17:40

    Anyone who reacts violently to a movie they find offensive is sick in the head. And those who blame the movie maker for the violence is even more so.

  • kurt
    September 21, 2012 - 11:50

    Better put your tinfoil hat back on Steve. The NSA's mind-control, cosmic ray generating, secret satellite is coming back overhead.

  • Steve
    September 21, 2012 - 10:16

    Should freedom of speech extend to fundemntalit evangelical organizations who calibrate there actions to incite fundemntalit Muslim groups in order to gain political advantage in the United States from the response, with an ultimate goal being racial holy war?