A P.S. to my defence of Tim Farron (and in support of freedom)

by Stephen Tall on March 27, 2012

This morning I blogged a defence of Tim Farron’s co-signing a letter challenging the Advertising Standards Authority’s decision to ban an advert making the claim ‘God can heal’, citing its lack of scientific evidence.

This triggered a vigorous comments thread with a (generally) high standard of debate, which I’ve just been reading through.

My view is a minority one among the party it seems. That doesn’t bother me: for years I argued the Lib Dems’ anti-tuition fees policy was utterly unrealistic. What surprises me more are the reasons put forward by some liberals for whom I have a lot of respect in favour of the ASA’s ban.

For many the point of principle is this: the ASA upholds the rules on advertising; these rules state that the advertiser must provide scientific proof to back up their claims; and all rules must be applied equally, regardless of the claim being made.

I understand the logic of this position. I just happen not to think such a rules-based, absolutist approach to state regulation of free speech is especially liberal.

Liberals should not ban lightly. There is only one reason to ban something: if the specific activity you are seeking to outlaw will harm others.

There is no evidence that the Healing On The Streets ministry will harm those who choose to listen to their message. They say — and no-one has produced evidence to the contrary — that they urge all who come to them to continue to seek proper medical care and attention. What they offer is additional to qualified clinicians not a substitute for it. I cannot therefore see the liberal justification for banning their adverts.

And for those liberals for whom consistency of the ASA’s regulatory practices trumps considerations of free speech, be aware inconsistency is already built into the law — political advertising is (quite rightly, I think) exempt from ASA regulation.

Politics is a belief-based, subjective system, far too contentious to fit such a neat regulatory framework. And so too is religion.

For me, liberalism is about freedom above all: freedom of the individual to think, say and do whatever they please unless it can be shown their actions limit a fellow citizen’s freedoms. And it’s freedom which gives us the knowledge and confidence to make up our own minds about the contestable claims of politicians and pastors alike.