Freedom of Speech: where are the boundaries?

Freedom of speech is a good thing, most people agree. Except when it takes effort. In 2004, Birmingham Repertory Theatre put on Behzti, a play which showed a rape in a Sikh temple; after a riot outside the theatre by outraged Sikhs, the play was cancelled, on grounds of health and safety. Mob violence achieved its aims, and the government and police agreed that it was the right thing to do; speaking out, it seems, is just too risky. Four years on, Birmingham Rep refused to discuss the topic with Cherwell.

Outrageous? Yes, but it could have been avoided. Theatre isn’t like other arts. With writing, it’s easy to see what freedom of speech should be: people should be able to write what they like, unless they’re actually racists or homophobes trying to cause hate killings. Thanks to the web, you can just put up whatever you like on a blog, and those who don’t like what a text says can just look away. Theatre’s different: Birmingham Rep could have just put on something a little less risky. A little censorship, and they wouldn’t have seemed so censorious.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see things their way. Behzti, many reviewers argue, was not damning social criticism but schlock shock theatre, calculated to attract attention: is it really a theatre’s duty to outrage people just to get a bad playwright noticed, even if they should have the right to if they want? Similar things have been said about The Jewel of Medina, a novel about Mohammed’s marriage to a nine-year-old, which was spiked last year after its publisher’s house was firebombed, and the far-right Dutch MP Geert Wilders, banned from the UK on grounds of public safety last month after he announced plans to show a film of pages from the Koran intercut with explosions.Here’s the problem with freedom of speech: sometimes you just wish the people you’re defending had never put pen to paper. Earlier this term, I went to see a talk by think-tank director Douglas Murray. Speaking to him afterwards, I mentioned that I was writing this article, and he smiled. One thing that pained him, he told me, was how he had to defend works he hated, like The Jewel of Medina: “It’s not even as good as softcore pornography, it’s more boring.” (He’s not very popular with Muslims either, and given that he’s said British-born Muslim terrorists should be deported to their grandparents’ country, and that Israel’s attack on Gaza was wholly proportionate and marked by its concern for the Gazans’ welfare, agreeing’s not hard.)

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The other limitation of freedom of speech is context: who wrote it? When I straw-polled my friends, most agreed that some jokes only aren’t racist if a black person makes them. And if we’re thinking about a play not a joke, it’s easy to see that a theatre might feel that a play about Sikhs coming from a Sikh or ex-Sikh sounds more insightful than one from a white Old Etonian like Murray. But surely it’s disgraceful to say that there are plays only some people can write, if they want them to be staged at least. Orwell understood this: there’s a passage in The Road To Wigan Pier agonising over communists ranting about how rich women trying to teach working-class families home economy were patronising: though he understood their anger, he knew that the comrades were too non-judgemental to care about children fed diets of white bread and sweetened milk, with nary a vegetable in sight.

In theatre, then, there can never be a simple policy of freedom of speech: we already have a censorship by merit before plays see a rehearsal space. Directors have to consider before they put on a play whether they’re looking at controversial play that the public should be allowed to see, or deliberately controversial attention-seeking (and whether they should put on the latter anyway). These aren’t questions with simple, glib answers, and the police’s response to Behzti, simply caving into a mob’s demands, doesn’t make me confident that they’re going to be able to make it responsibly in future. Above all, if a play provokes a riot, whatever it says, the last thing the government should do is show that rioting’s the way to get what you want. It’s quite likely that Behzti has left theatres too scared to criticise or mock anybody who might fight back: in other words, exactly the people socially aware theatres should be mocking and criticising.