Right of Reply: Claire Fox

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The Independent Culture
The publisher of `LM' magazine responds to a call

by Ken Livingstone to outlaw Fascist


"SHOULD WE let Fascists have free speech?" asks Ken Livingstone. Yes! Making speech free says nothing about the value of the words or ideas expressed.

What is at stake here is not freedom for crackpot racists but freedom for everyone in society. When Ken Livingstone asks whose civil liberties we protect by allowing free speech for groups such as Combat 18 and the British National Party, he implies it is those of the speakers. However, it is about protecting the rights of listeners.

As long as we are all free to judge for ourselves the importance of what's being said, then words should never be banned. It should be the right of the electorate to hear all the candidates and make up their own minds as to the validity of their case. I don't want Livingstone deciding whose opinions I get to hear. If I don't like these ideas I can challenge or rebut them, or treat them with indifference if they deserve it. I want to be the judge of that, not some holier-than-thou politician.

But something more dangerous lurks beneath this call for bans: a barely disguised contempt for people. Mr Livingstone appears to assume that words and their consequences are the same thing. The next BNP political broadcast, he alleges, will lead to "thugs" going "out on to the streets" to "give a good kicking to the first black man they find". Does he think that the BNP's words are all it will take to turn us all into racist thugs?

In fact, words have consequences only if we choose to give them consequences. It is not the words themselves - whether in a broadcast or a Combat 18 magazine - that cause things to happen.

Unlike Ken, I believe that any free human being, with a mind of his own, has the ability to judge between right and wrong. The only thing that responds mindlessly to the command "kill" is an attack dog. People are not animals; and it is precisely a belief in free speech which indicates that society believes humans are capable of more than the instinctive reactions of beasts.