Freedom of expression IS the right to give offence

October 13, 2012 at 3:25 pm (Civil liberties, democracy, Free Speech, Jim D, law, Peter Tatchell, relativism, religion)

“Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently”Rosa Luxemburg

An unpleasant-sounding character called Barry Thew wore the t-shirt shown below, in the Manchester area, on the day that two women police officers were murdered there. He has now been given a four month jail sentence for the crime of  giving “insult” under Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act.

Barry Thew wore the anti-police T-shirt in public just hours after the killings of two PCs
This follows hard on the heels of the student jailed for tweeting something vile and racist about Fabrice Muamba, a boy jailed for putting something sick and disgusting on Facebook about April Jones and Madeleine MacCann, and a young man sentenced to community service for posting something on Facebook celebrating the deaths of British soldiers in Afghanistan.
In none of these cases was it claimed by the prosecution that the offending comments amounted to incitement to violence or any other criminal act other than giving offence and/or insult. The tweet about Muamba was, conceivably, an act of racial discrimination but that was not the prosecution’s case. The boy who posted vile stuff about April Jones and Madeleine McCann was possibly guilty of the crime of harassment (against their parents), but again, that was not the charge; it was brought under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which outlaws “send[ing] by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” (my emphasis -JD).
The religious lobby (spearheaded by the Muslim leadership, happily followed by Christians and all other mainstream religions) has succeeded in establishing the giving of “offence” against religion as a crime. The Blair government, in desperate need of Muslim support following Iraq, brought in the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations, 2003 which make it an offense to “discriminate” against anyone on grounds on their religion – unless the ‘discriminator’ is itself a religious organisation! This sort of nonsense has been further perpetuated by the rise of identity politics and relativism on the so-called “left.”
Those of us who support free speech and insist that it is a fundamental component of the great progressive heritage of the Enlightenment (of which Marxism is a product) are, these days, constantly having to rebut those who seem to think that free speech doesn’t include the right to give offence or to be stupid and wrong (in which case, what DOES it mean?) or who muddy the waters by suggesting that expressing offensive opinions is the same thing as an act of violence or discrimination. Some of the people who seem unable to comprehend these fairly simple distinctions do seem to be a bit thick, and generally fall into the “liberal”/relativist catagory.
But others are clearly engaged in a superficially coherent, thoroughly reactionary and (usually) religiously-based attack upon freedom of speech, using the fundamentally dishonest ‘argument’ that supporters of free speech are positively in favour of some (imaginary) “duty to be offensive.”
A further argument (usually implied, rather than openly stated) is that freedom of speech is the product of a particular form of liberal politics, very often derided as “bourgeois,” “European”, or “Western”.
Mehdi Hasan, a smooth operator and practiced dissembler, came out with the following (below) reactionary and intellectually bankrupt excercise in obscurantism at a recent debate:

Mehdi Hasan, political director of The Huffington Post UK, called for a crackdown on the culture of Islamophobia and argued freedom of speech was not an “absolute right” during a debate on Thursday.

Speaking opposite Times columnist David Aaronovitch at a HuffPost/Polis debate, on the right to offend, Mr Hasan argued free speech was being “fetishized” and claimed many free-speech campaigners in the west were guilty of “brazen hypocrisy.”

“We have a civic duty not to offend others,” he told the a packed audience at the London School of Economics.

“How can you construct a civilised, cohesive society if we go round encouraging everyone to insult each other willy nilly?

“Yes we do have a right to offend but it’s not the same as having a duty to be offensive. You have a responsibility not to go out of your way to piss people off.

“I have the right to fart in a lift, but I don’t do it because it is offensive.

“Some people want the right to be offensive but then get cross when people are offended.”

[NB:  Peter Tatchell on the Barry Thew case and “the right to be offensive” here]


  1. Rosie said,

    But others are clearly engaged in an intellectually coherent, thoroughly reactionary and (usually) religiously-based attack upon freedom of speech, using the fundamentally dishonest ‘argument’ that supporters of free speech are positively in favour of some (imaginary) “duty to be offensive.”

    You mean “incoherent” don’t you? They haven’t got the guts to spell out “we need a blasphemy law” – but I bet you are going to get some cases in this appalling “offence” law which will be blasphemy offences in effect.

    • Jim Denham said,

      I did, in fact, mean ” intellectually coherent” in the sense that sophisticated political/religious operators like Mehdi Hasan know exactly what they’re seeking to achieve (ie further restrictions on freedom of expression) whereas the likes of Deborah Orr are just invertebrate “liberals” and relativist idiots.

      Nevertheless, I take your point: the arguments put forward by Hasan and the more sophisticated anti-free expression people are not, in fact “intellectually coherent” (as the quote from his debate with Aaronovitch shows), so I’m changing my wording to “superficially coherent.”

      Thanks for the point.

  2. Rosie said,

    The Azhar Ahmed case is particularly disturbing. He’s very young, he’s apologised – and since when have soldiers been such delicate flowers that abuse of them is supposed to be so offensive? I find this new cherishing of the armed forces quite creepy – it’s not as if they’re fighting the Battle of Britain. However, they are becoming the equivalent of the Virgin Mary and Mohammad, depending on your religious persuasion, as being not open to being abused.

  3. The Judge said,

    Yikes! commentor in “Denham writes piece I almost entirely agree with” shock! Although of course, like the odious Cohen, you can’t let the chance pass to snipe at Teh Muzlms, can you?

    Oh, and does your espousal of freedom of speech now extend to the people you’ve banned from commenting on SS because they say something ‘offensive’ about your favourite racially-based State? Just asking…

  4. Jim Denham said,

    Judge: whether we choose to host people’s comments here has nothing whatsoever to do with the issue of free speech.

    For instance I’m against making racist speech and writing (including antisemitic speech and writing) illegal, but I reserve the right to ban it from here (although we do, infact put up with a lot of “left” antisemitic shite).

    Do you really not understand the point?

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