Richard Sorabji

Sir Richard Sorabji (Oxford University) will deliver a series of three lectures, the second series of the annual Rutgers Lectures in Philosophy :

Lecture I – Freedom of Speech for all: the gradual discovery, East and West.
Date/Time: Monday Oct. 30th, 2017, 3:00-5:00pm (reception to follow)
Location: Alexander Library, Teleconference Room (Room 403)

Lecture II – Freedom of speech: voluntary boundaries when it stops discussion and the art of continuing discussion by other means
Date/Time: Thursday Nov. 2nd, 2017, 3:00-5:00pm (reception to follow)
Location: Alexander Library, Teleconference Room (Room 403)

Lecture III –  Freedom of Speech: Difficulties in framing and policing legal boundaries
Date/Time: Friday Nov. 3rd, 2017, 3:00-5:00pm (reception to follow)
Location: Rutgers Academic Building, Room 2125




Lecture Abstracts:

Lecture I – Freedom of Speech for all: the gradual discovery, East and West.

Already before anything so inclusive in the West, the Indian emperor Ashoka, 3rd century BC, desired that all religious persuasions should live together, learn and respect the doctrines of others and avoid disparagement.

For the Athenians of the 5th to 4th century BC, free speech was confined to approved adult male citizens, comic poets and Cynic philosophers, but not allowed to the Cynics’ model, Socrates. Greek philosophers of the 4th century BC argued that even Cynics must earn their right to free speech.

In 529 AD, when the Christian emperor Justinian stopped the pagan Athenian philosophers teaching, King Khushru I of Persia gave them refuge and their discussions were translated into English last year. Paul the Persian explained Aristotle’s logic to Khushru, and his work passed through Syriac to the Arabic philosophers around the 11th century.

Those Islamic Arabic philosophers were free to follow Aristotle and deny the theological views that the world had a beginning, that there was an after-life and that God knew individuals.

Audrey Truschke’s work in Rutgers suggests that the motive of Akbar, 16th century Muslim emperor of India, for having Hindu religious epics translated into Persian was presented as wanting each religion to correct its own mistakes, without adopting the other’s mistakes.

Christian Europe was not so open-minded. It tended to ban beliefs, not just words, but in Paris of 1277, 219 propositions were named which might not be expressed, and from the 10th century to the 16th new translations of the Bible were largely banned, on pain of death.

The first European objection at book length to prior licenses for publication may have been Milton’s in 1644, when the Levellers in England were about to release from home printing presses thousands of leaflets pressing for votes for all freeborn. Holland, in that century was a safer haven for dissident writers, who included Locke, Bayle and Spinoza.

The US constitution of March 1789 did not mention free speech, but by June Madison was drafting his amendments, and at first included individual freedom of speech for citizens. But with two states reluctant to join the Union, in the First Amendment of 1791 it was left to the states to decide on speech. It was the 14th Amendment of 1868 that gave free speech to all individuals and by that time the former slaves were included.

In 1789, the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen called for free speech for them all, and was praised by Thomas Paine in the Rights of Man of 1791-2 for doing so. In England Lord Erskine in 1792 defended Paine’s right to speak against the British constitution, but lost.

Mill’s plea for freedom of speech in On Liberty of 1859 seconded Milton’s view that it is the best route to truth, and Cicero for the view that you know your own case only when you know your opponent’s.

I read Gandhi’s 1926 work in India as a live exemplar of Mill’s free speech ideals.


Lecture II – Freedom of speech: voluntary boundaries when it stops discussion and the art of continuing discussion by other means

Mill emphasises the value of free speech, rather than the individual’s right to it. The US 14th Amendment slightly later stresses the rights of the individual. When use of our right to free speech frustrates its benefits, as it does if it stops discussion dead, this should provide us supporters of free speech with a voluntary boundary to using our right. If cartoons denigrating The Prophet stop discussion, and replace it with murder, followed by increased solidarity on both sides, the benefits of free speech have been lost. But there have been millennia of alternative kinds of speech as an art which opens ears, to use Gandhi’s phrase.


Lecture III –  Freedom of Speech: Difficulties in framing and policing legal boundaries

The difficulty of framing and policing laws in three areas, to curb verbal abuse, protect privacy, or discourage deception. One difficulty for the law is to apply the same principles across different subject matters. In the USA, Oliver Wendell Holmes.’ principle of neutrality about morals and as between persons of different backgrounds may have applied uncontroversially and well in the law on seditious speech, but looked strange from the perspective of Europe, when applied to pornographic or racist expression.

Nonetheless, the US search for a morally neutral response confined to a tendency or intention to produce public disorder has influenced the revised, though not the original, laws on sedition and on religious abuse in India, whereas the UK’s law on racial abuse has been more influenced by European law. We find also in different countries an oscillation between intention and likelihood (or tendency) of producing the unwanted result, and these two presented together in combination or as alternatives, as well as the dubious inference from likelihood to intention. All this complicates the framing of law.

Privacy law started comparatively early in the USA in 1890, but in the UK there was little until 1998, and that was under the influence of European law. In 2004, the European Court of Justice ruled against the right of paparazzi photographers to invade the privacy of people just because they were public figures, in this case Princess Caroline of Monaco. If that law had been in force in 1997, might it have saved the life of Princess Diana of the UK, who died in a car chase by paparazzi?

Deception in the Press cannot be controlled by censoring its content, or the Press would not be able to hold government to account. Hence a different approach to Press falsehoods has recently been suggested. As for deception in advertisements, in the UK it is illegal for commercial advertisements, but not for political ones.

The internet is probably now causing the hardest problems in the three areas of privacy deception, and verbal abuse. There is a lack of boundaries on personal verbal abuse and intimidation. But even more difficult than the personal use of the internet, is its use by organisations, the security services and advertising platforms, which concern all three of our areas, privacy, deception and verbal abuse, in ways that would have been unimaginable until very recently. In Europe, the European Union is providing the best protection and its size gives it more leverage than any  individual European country.

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