How ‘free’ is freedom of speech?


Thursday 15th January 2015

A wholly appropriate enquiry in view of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent self-questioning of some of the West’s fundamental values.

Article 19 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights says this about the notion of freedom of speech: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

The discussion proceeded to explore the difference between the freedom of expression embodied in the satire of Charlie Hebdo and the intent to cause offence. HOW do we establish such intent?

One student suggested that freedom of expression encapsulates one’s identity: when we express ourselves freely on any topic, we are saying something that defines us, personally, culturally, spiritually. Someone somewhere is bound to take offence, since people are fundamentally different in all of these respects. There may be no intent to cause offense, but our cultural or spiritual heritage determines a response and gives us a ‘right’ to take offence as much as to speak freely.

Muslims who felt offended by the caricatures of their Prophet felt angry and perhaps rightly so. But the same can be said of anyone else who’s been in Charlie Hebdo’s satirical line of fire: politicians, celebrities, Jews, Christians and so on.

Clearly satire can and does cause offence even if this wasn’t an intended effect of the satire (sometimes it is the intent.) But does it incite hatred? The Nazis used cartoons to satirize the Jews and did so with the express project of demonising them. The logic goes like this: if you dehumanise someone, it becomes easier to hate them and, ultimately, to kill them.

So did Charlie explicitly publish with the intent to cause offence or to incite hatred? And does it follow that the attack on the Paris office was somehow deserved?

Here’s a splendid article by Stephen Law which explores the philosophical issue implicit in this question…

‘What’s the point of lampooning religion? To upset the religious?’

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