Yesterday was, apparently, the 400th anniversary of the last time someone in England was burned at the stake for heresy.
He denied Heaven, Hell, the immortality of the soul, and claimed he was the Son of God.
Last week we also saw the banning of some advertisements on the sides of London buses.
All of which set me thinking about censorship. It’s one of those boo-words. Most people will say they approve of free speech, and disapprove of censorship (or certainly most who get anywhere near a public platform on the media.)
However, I think that is not true. Most of us would deny the right of a pornographer to tell lewd stories to children, for example. Many would agree, in the circumstances, with Germany’s prohibition of Holocaust denial.
Then there is speech which aims to incite others to break the law or hate their fellows; verbal abuse of various kinds; and so on. And there’s the classic example of shouting ‘Fire’ in a crowded theatre.
So in practice, much as we may laud the principle of Free Speech, we know that reality is more complex and we cannot make an absolute out of this principle. As Elvis Costello observed: ‘There are some words that don’t allow to be spoken!’
The Church, in former times, held this view about heresy, and held it strongly. Given the fall out from heresy since those days, I think it was onto something, even if I may not agree with burning as the right way of censoring heresy.
For me, the really interesting questions are:
- What principles do we apply to limit free speech?
- Who decides?