Freedom of Speech – by right or responsibility?

I have been burdened recently in writing this article; each time I get it finished, something else hits me, usually from the media that I think needs to be included – this morning I finally post it, completed, but in the knowledge that it will never be truly finished. The subject is the perennial question regarding Freedom of Speech – I find myself wavering between the support of absolute freedom with a need for some restrictions. Let me explain.

Two weeks ago, a film maker produced a short film that most of us have never, and will never see. Apparently, the film portrays the prophet Mohammed in offensive guises, as a “womaniser, buffoon, ruthless killer and child molester”. It is against Islamic law to have any depiction of Mohammed, let alone one so insulting; it is an absolute taboo in the Muslim world.

The movie appears to have been backed by hardcore anti-Islamic groups in US that posted trailers up on YouTube in July. The authorities ignored this low budget project in the United States, but after Egyptian television aired segments of it, violent protests erupted on the streets of Cairo against western targets and then spread further afield to Yemen, Tunisia, Morocco and Sudan. It resulted in social unrest, destruction and death.

Should there be freedom to make and circulate a film that has the potential to cause major global offense?

Following the outbursts across North Africa, a French satirical publication, Charlie Hebdo, poured fuel on the fire by producing a set of cartoons based on the Muslim world’s reactions to the film. The editor asks why they should be allowed to mock hard-line Catholic observance but not extreme Islamic belief. The news clip contains his interview.

The publication was a primary factor in increased civil unrest, demonstrations moved into European cities, and more extreme rioting was directed at American targets, resulting in twenty people being killed outside the American Embassy by security personnel in two Pakistani cities.

Should there be freedom to publish images that are likely to disturb a delicate global balance?

Last week a Conservative minister on his bicycle was prevented by two police officers from using the main exit from Downing Street. He was told to use the pedestrian gate instead. His reaction, for which he has subsequently apologised, was to hurl abuse and insult at the officers. As an excuse he stated that “it had been the end of a long and frustrating day”.

Should an individual be free to let off steam even if it is against another person?

John Terry, the ex-captain of the England football team, is in the dock again today; this time at the Football Association. The charge against him of using racist and offensive language will not go away. This time, it appears that the cost of his actions is his future as an England footballer.

Should anyone be free to express themselves in a personal and insulting fashion, even in the heat of a situation?

Some limitations of a person’s freedom are laid down in law, whilst others can be found in the ethical codes that most of us try to live by; making choices for good rather than bad. Perhaps boundaries need to be imposed because people are generally pretty poor at self censorship and control. The more acute a situation, the less able we seem to be to control what we do and say.

Before we act or speak, do we need to take into account individual or group sensitivities whilst also addressing the local and global social perspective? If the answer to these questions is “yes”, then limitations to freedom of speech are needed, because we have proven, as in the situations above, that we are incapable of self-limitation.

I’d be interested in your thoughts.

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
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8 Responses to Freedom of Speech – by right or responsibility?

  1. ar says:

    Freedom of Speech is a fundamental right, but with it comes a responsibility. you should not go out and deliberately try to upset people under the guise of “Freedom of Speech” There also cannot be double standards when it comes to freedom of speech. The French government allow the publication of the cartoons, but ban any demonstrations whatsoever in france against them, where has the freedom of speech now?

    The violent outrage in the middle east was very sad and uncalled for, the film was created to provoke reaction, which unfortunately it did.

  2. Chris Thomas says:

    I believe there should be a freedom of speech. The keyword here is – believe. Of course this does not exclude having a sensitivity to its effects on certain audiences.
    The French cartoons and the US video did not have freedom a speech as an objective, instead, they wanted to deliberately provoke reaction or publicity. Freedom of speech was used as a fig-leaf to cover deliberately provocative behavior.
    As ever, the stupidity of a few has consequences in the larger world.

  3. blog follower says:

    I think that those who are apparently offended have a responsibility too. “I’m offended and therefore I am entitled to resort to violence” is no basis for any form of helpful dialogue.

  4. “Then limitations to freedom of speech are needed, because we have proven, as in the situations above, that we are incapable of self-limitation”

    If you were born in an African country in early 1970, Lead by an anarchic and controlling government, you would have never write down something like that; freedom of speech is the reason why I could leave my country, come to Europe, get a proper education and today live in UK and have an happy family.

    Freedom of speech is the reason why people in my country decided one day to fight for their right and for a better future, freedom of speech is what gave us the courage to confront our leaders and tell them that if they would not take the proper decision to change our country we, the people, will force them to go, freedom of speech is what gave MADIBA the strength to make changes people never thought would ever happen and bring two worlds that hated each other together to try to move forward, hand in hand for a greater purpose; PEACE.

    I hope you will not be offended by my short introduction, but this is a topic that has change my life and still do today.
    My roots are in Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and South Africa, which should explain why freedom of speech is important to me.

    My opinion on your few example that brought you to express your thought that we should limit this fundamental right:

    1. Nobody care that a conservative MP had an insulting attitude toward a few police officers, having this type of story in the front page of all UK newspapers was just wrong and inappropriate, considering the role the police and the UK government has had in the Hillsborough disaster; It should be a time where the Police in this country should be ashamed.
    2. John Terry is just a disgrace to the football community in this country, if he is a racist and believed what he say to Ferdinand, I have no problem with that, from my point of view this is his right, but he should be punish to have said that on the wrong stage, in front of millions of kids all over the world. We do not have to like of love everyone (I don’t), but we must show people respect and respect their choice of life, religion and sexual orientation (I do).
    3. About the cartoons publications in Charlie Hebdo, what make me laugh is that every day they have cartoons mocking the catholic church, the Vatican and the pope and nobody care (I’m in Paris 2 days every weeks), but when they do the same thing with Islam or their prophet, people call them irresponsible and provocative…. Please explain that to me!
    4. The movie published on YouTube was definitely inappropriate, it is one thing to have cartoons in a French magazine in a country where the Muslim community is “mostly peaceful” but to spread a movie of that type on YouTube is a guaranty to create protests and violence in most Muslim countries that felt offended and insulted.

    Freedom of speech is a fundamental right that no one should be denied to have or use, if we agree with you, that we should let governments tell us what to do or where to go; Internet, Facebook, Twitter, blogging, writing, taking and publishing photos online, travelling, exploring, …. Would become completely obsolete dear Michael…

    The question would be, would you want to live in a world like that?


  5. equalityedge says:

    Hi Patrice

    Thanks so much for your comment. I was using the examples to show how widespread the question reaches. In my writing, as you may have seen in the past, I ask plenty of questions, rarely giving too many answers. However, on this issue I find myself seeing the argument from both sides, but like you, I know that I would not want to live in a world without freedom of speech. It would be humourless, anodyne and would soon become a boring environment in which to exist.

    Freedom of speech is a basic human right. We must work towards a day when all people will accept that right with the responsibilities that accompany it. Then we will be assured that individual and group sensitivities will be respected and protected.


  6. Malcolm Johnston says:

    If free speech is to mean anything it must be as described, that is a right to speak freely, even when I don’t agree with what is said or when I think that it is ill advised.

    A number of illustrations have been referred to:

    (i) The offensive and no doubt intentionally provocative film, would have remained in deserved obscurity if the media had not picked it up (in this case the Egyptian media).

    (ii) The French case, about which I know little, seems to have been deliberately provocative to highlight a point- no doubt counting on it being picked up by the media.

    (iii) The Conservative chief whip’s injudicious remarks (whatever they were). A minor problem but one stoked up by the media.

    (iv) John Terry whose on pitch utterance, was claimed to just be a repetition of what he believed he was accused of saying. He was cleared in the courts on the basis that it could not be proved what he intended but faces an FA tribunal which carries a lesser burden of proof (ie they can assess the probability). A situation made far worse by its coverage.

    Perhaps there are two problems here, (a) the actual words said and the effects on those present and (b) the way they are subsequently reported. The offence caused by the second is surely far greater than the original moment as the words are repeated without context.

    I am for free speech, but worried at the way some (especially our media) choose to use it.

  7. oliver17wood says:

    Great blog, with some very interesting ideas.

    Please check out my blog post on affirmative action, I’d welcome feedback.

    My analysis of the situation here is that the right to free speech is a little naive. If we accept that we cannot act physically in any way that we want, for example rape is an uncontroversial example of an unacceptable physical act, then we should presumably accept that we cannot act in any way we want in the mental realm. In other words, it seems that we should accept that we do not always have the right to free speech. This would be in cases in which mental harm is intentionally caused to others.

    It is more difficult when we encounter a situation were there was no intention to cause harm. I think in a case such we should not lay the blame on the person speaking, unless they refuse to apologise.

    The really interesting question comes when we ask is it the Government’s responsibility to prevent speech that has been found to cause harm, when there was no intention to cause harm initially. I am really undecided on this question.

  8. Sultan says:

    There are already limitations in ‘Freedom of Speech’. If there were not, why do we have libel laws, defamation of character cases, inciting hatred legislation, broadcasting codes (TV and Radio) and the like?

    Somebody posted up on my Facebook the other day the following;

    When people attack Black People, they call it racism
    When people attack Jewish people, they call it anti-semetism
    When people attack women, they call it sexism
    When people attack Homosexuality, they call it homophobia
    When people attack their own country, they call it treason
    When people attack a religious sect, they call it hate
    When people attack Islam, they call it Freedom of Speech

    I’d be interested to hear your views

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