Esteemed philosopher Professor Sir Richard Sorabji enters debate on free speech and religious freedom

11 March 2015

Esteemed philosopher Professor Sir Richard Sorabji entered the debate over the correct balance of freedoms of speech and freedom of religion, with a lecture delivered at Wolfson College last week, in which he gave a sweeping overview of the origins and development of the concept of freedom of speech and explored the philosophical principles underpinning the debate.


Professor Sorabji, who was knighted in 2014 for services to philosophy, began his comments by charting the history of the concept of freedom of speech from the Greeks to the present day. He showed that the current pre-eminence of free speech in the public consciousness is a relatively recent development in European society, having been preceded by the concepts of freedom of religion and freedom of conscience.


Even in ancient Athens, the cradle of democracy, free speech was a circumscribed privilege, granted only to full citizens whose parents were born within the city of Athens, to comic poets, and to philosophers such as Socrates who tested the limits of free speech and often paid with their lives.


By the seventeenth century, he argued, speaking freely and publicly against those in power was still a dangerous practice, but the advent of printing, which by the time Milton’s treatise on free publication allowed pamphlets to be printed privately, made it increasingly difficult for states to effectively regulate the free speech of their citizens.


Turning to the United States, Professor Sorabji addressed one of the most influential periods in the development of the concept of free speech – the First Amendment to the US Constitution introduced by Madison in 1791. This declared that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech”, yet the motivation for the amendment came as much from the pragmatic need to offer greater concessions to two states that were refusing to join the Union as from the principled decision to protect freedoms of speech and religion.


Professor Sorabji emphasized the lateness of the Supreme Court’s shift towards not interfering with offensive speech in the 1972 Mosley ruling that the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over the content of speech. Perhaps most significantly, the Court ruled in 1978 that a Nazi demonstration in Skokie, Illinois should be allowed, in accordance with the First Amendment provision for free speech and assembly, thereby overriding the decision of the district in Illinois to ban the march and, in doing so, going against Madison’s motives for drafting the First Amendment.

Lampooning a particular religious group should not be permitted solely for the purpose of lampooning in cases where the hurt would constitute a harm, or create danger


Addressing the recent attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, Professor Sorabji concluded that lampooning is sometimes desirable against some groups, but lampooning a particular religious group should not be permitted solely for the purpose of lampooning in cases where the hurt would constitute a harm, or create danger, and “make the world a very much more violent place”.


He concluded by advocating the approach of the Indian penal code, which states that you may not injure religious feeling “with deliberate malice”, but cautioned that even a good law can be corrupted with political influence.


An audio recording of the lecture is available upon request from Professor Sorabji at Wolfson College.