Aunt Selma and freedom of speech

by Rebecca Hilsenrath

Published: 12 Feb 2015

My husband's aunt died a couple of years ago. Whenever we visited her, she used to make a rather tasteless variety of sugarless biscuit she swore were his favourites. I'm not quite sure what the point is of biscuits unless they have sugar in them, really. Otherwise, you're just in denial and may as well eat an orange instead. She had five children and forty nine grandchildren. 

Last weekend, he and I went to see Selma, the film about Martin Luther King Jr. The connection is that my husband's aunt was called Selma, and I have always associated it with older Jewish women, not with America's racist past, but of course Selma, Alabama, saw the marches to Montgomery which eventually led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It seems to me, writing now, that the connection of Selma and Selma is not without significance.

Many are better qualified than I to write a review of this impressive film. The thinking which led to me writing this blog, though, quite specifically, was about the flood of white Americans who came to join their black compatriots on the marches. They didn't need to be there and they didn't stand to benefit from it - many were hurt and some died for what they did. But they still came to stand shoulder to shoulder with King’s people. I find that desperately moving.

It is interesting to reflect, as I did in the cinema, on Dr King's philosophy of non-violence, because I saw the film only days after the Commission published its guidance on Freedom of Expression. Watching Selma allowed me the opportunity to consider this fundamental human right from the opposite perspective. Dr King's views - that all black Americans should be freely entitled to vote without restrictions - were an anathema to the Southern establishment; they were very deeply offensive - as provocative to them, then, as their views are now to us. What won King the support of the white people who travelled to walk by his side was the fact that he sought only dialogue and not violence. King marched to Montgomery seventeen years after the UN Declaration of Human Rights was signed and fifteen years after the European Convention of Human Rights. The principles which underlie those great treaties are that democracy insists on freedom to speak, provided the rights of others are respected. That's where King positioned himself. And, of course, the converse holds true. The law does not prevent the candid debate of controversial opinions, however offensive to the listener.

I thought again of the white marchers in Alabama when I went to Lambeth Palace on Monday afternoon for the launch of the report of the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into anti-Semitism. Not because of the report (a broad, detailed and important piece of work with support across all political parties), not because of the urgency of the hour or the nature of the problem (though it is dire) and not even because of the venue (which was majestic, welcoming and significant) but simply because most of the Parliamentary team are not Jewish.

What is it about people who are prepared to stand up for what they believe is right when the protected characteristics under siege are not theirs? I recognised the lump in my throat as I listened to the speeches at Lambeth Palace - it was the same lump that I had noticed the day before in the cinema.

The report into anti-Semitism highlights the territory where freedom of speech does not provide the whole answer. As we said in our Legal Framework on Freedom of Expression, it is a criminal offence to stir up hatred on the ground of religion or to incite racial hatred. But it doesn't do to look to the law for a guide to living. Speaking as a lawyer, I would be vastly surprised if anyone genuinely thought that was what the law is for. The law protects freedoms and rights and provides important safeguards but what defines a human being and what we share regardless of creed or colour is the responsibility to exercise respect, to offer understanding and to feel empathy. 

Anti-Semitism has been called the oldest hatred, but it has cousins. Speaking as a Jew, and following the examples of the white marchers in Alabama and those who wrote the report into anti-Semitism, it seems to me that the best thing I could have done in the week after the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz was to read one of the speeches of Martin Luther King.

'And this is why I say from time to time that the struggle in the South is not so much the tension between white people and black people. The struggle is rather between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will not be a victory merely for fifty thousand black Americans. But it will be a victory for justice, a victory for good will, a victory for democracy.'