The Limits of Free Speech

It is the Charlie Hebdo cartoons that were in the headlines this year, because of the murders of twelve journalists and cartoonists at its Paris offices in January. Not unnaturally, this prompted a huge outpouring of sympathy and support not only for the families and friends of the victims, but also for the principles of free speech. The murders, it seems, were viewed by the majority of people, certainly in the west, as an attack on democracy and the principles of free speech and, by extension, on all of our western values.

But, even in the west, not everyone would view them in the same way. Whilst condemning the murders as abhorrent, there were many who pointed out that the cartoons were distasteful and unnecessary, and provocative towards all Muslims, and to view the cartoons as offensive was not the same thing as regarding all western civilisation as beyond the pale. And not the same thing as condoning the murders.

Yes, we do have the right of free, or at least reasonably unfettered, speech, but it is important to remember that with rights come responsibilities. It is generally accepted that we do not lie under oath, and that it is unacceptable to malign or defame someone. It is quite rightly against the law to shout ‘Fire!’ in a crowded cinema if there is no fire, or to claim that an expensive nostrum that one is marketing is the elixir of life.

It is against the law to incite violence, but, to return for the moment to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, it could be argued that their publication was just that. Those responsible for the publication must have been perfectly aware that they would be regarded as deliberately provocative and would provoke anger and outrage. At the very least, they displayed an unnecessary lack of respect towards a large number of people; a complete disregard for their feelings. I cannot help but compare their actions to those of the hooligan who throws a brick through a window, just to enjoy the sound of the destruction, and the knowledge that he has hurt and offended someone who he may never have met.

So…censorship. There! BOO! I’ve used the C word! To suggest that there might be valid reasons why we might have limits on free speech, is to openly invite accusations that one would like to censor this and that and everything and that is obviously a bad thing, no? Well, that depends rather on whether or not you agree with what I have just written. I would not suggest that discussion of certain subjects should be taboo, but that the challenge is to find a way to discuss a difficult subject without causing unnecessary offence, otherwise we prevent that discussion happening in a rational and intelligent way, anyway. It is not wholly possible to avoid controversy, and indeed we should not wish to, but a healthy discussion is not the same as a slanging match.

If it is possible to speak out to draw attention to injustices in a state or a system, or to discuss controversial subjects without the fear of being persecuted for doing so, then one is enjoying freedom of speech. Deliberately insulting or slighting another person is no more than rudeness; technically, it is verbal assault.

How does all this pertain to the writer, then? Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Conrad’s ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’, if written today, would clearly need to be given a different title. But does that make Conrad racist? No, it was considered to be acceptable, when it was written, to use that as a title. It wasn’t then considered as provocative. If he was writing today, Conrad would surely avoid it.

Many of the Father Brown stories are quite racist in their content but, again, are of their time. If Chesterton were writing today, he would surely write them differently, without those racist overtones. Whether or not he had any particular feelings about the superiority, or otherwise, of any particular race, he would, hopefully, self-censor his writing. It is, after all, what we all do at times to avoid offending someone else (don’t we?).

A number of newspaper journalists and editors will use the phrase ‘in the public interest’ to justify publishing damaging stories of famous figures’ private lives that can have no possible bearing on the lives of members of the public, but are merely prurient and salacious and sell newspapers. Is this a misuse of free speech?

What are your thoughts on this issue?