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Suis-je libre? Freedom of speech, freedom of press

Charlie Hebdo. The name could refer to anyone—a neighbour, a co-worker, a family member, the local postman even—but the moniker has recently taken on an entirely greater significance as the quasi-personification of the right of free speech and the freedom of the press that is enshrined in Western liberal democracy. The banner ‘Je Suis Charlie’ (“I am Charlie”) has been adopted by campaigners as an empowering tag-line reinforcing solidarity amongst those who seek to defend our rights and condemn the actions of those who would seek to oppress it.

The shocking events in Paris in January, where at least 12 people lost their lives in a massacre at the offices of satirical magazine named Charlie Hebdo, were allegedly the latest in an all-too-long line of appalling acts by extremists, attempting to punish and intimidate. The attackers were said to have been shouting “the Prophet is avenged” in response to the magazine’s publication of cartoons involving both the Prophet Mohammed and the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, strongly suggesting the presence of vengeance as an over-riding motive. However, the horrific actions have also ignited a passion in the population regarding the freedom of speech we apparently enjoy in most Western democracies and a desire to unify to defend it.

But the question remains: how free is our freedom? How free should it be?


The Human Rights Act 1998, the moral legislative code of the EU, includes Article 10: The right to freedom of expression. Article 10 states that “everyone has the right to freedom of expression,” a potentially simple and emancipating ruling. However, in the subsequent chapter, the right appears to be immediately qualified, “the exercise of these freedoms…may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society.” So immediately, our beacon of freedom of speech has been blunted in law.

The UK attempts to “prescribe by law” the aforementioned restrictions in Section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 by criminalising “threatening, abusive or insulting words of behaviour.” Without tackling the legal intricacies, the ruling contains a noticeable subjective element which, on one occasion, led to a conviction of a student for questioning the sexuality of a police officer’s horse… The government is said to have made efforts to repeal this controversial clause of Section 5, but some say that new extremist disruption orders will fill the anti-democratic void.

It seems clear, given the above, that our right to freedom of speech is, at present, qualified. Like telling someone they can run around a shop Supermarket Sweep style and grab anything they want to keep for free, as long as it’s valued at less than £50.

Hate Speech

The reasons for the restricting of this misleadingly universal freedom are important but thought-provoking. A lot of these focus on the prevalence of “hate speech,” the advocacy of hatred based on nationality, race or religion.

One could reasonably expect that allowing people, especially charismatic people addressing an impressionable audience, to espouse hatred against a particular group (or groups) would lead to negative and dangerous consequences. Exposure to highly-charged emotional speech is likely to lead to a similarly emotionally charged reaction from human beings on occasion, and, when adrenaline and passion run high, the result is tragically often violence. Therefore, in an effort to protect society, the authorities have acted to suppress the public vocalisation of opinions which would incite or cause the kind of behaviours causing a threat to public order and safety.

In a debate at the Hart House Debating Club in Canada, a participant offers up the notion that “hate is the ejection button of rationality,” thereby implying that someone who proclaims hate against another group does so because of passion, historical cultural triggers or one-off past experiences, with the absence of rational reasoning. With no way to reason with an individual who is this way inclined, it is argued that the only defence against the spread of hatred and potential tragic implications is to control the source, i.e. the criminalisation of public advocacy of hatred.

Obviously, this is a noble effort, and the UK benefits from a relatively peaceful society where views are offered and exchanged reasonably, on the whole. The primary issue is the inherent subjectivity in the current legislation, and the increase in this subjectivity with every subsequent law. There has to be someone who decides what constitutes an “insult” for legislative purposes, but offence is something that is taken, not given, thereby being unique to the individual. Individuals, including the couch potato’s encyclopaedia, Stephen Fry, have questioned the entire validity of the concepts of insult and offence, though Fry’s comments surely do not assume the extreme consequence of vitriolic hatred as a result of insult.

The late Christopher Hitchens intimated that freedom of speech is comprised of two parts: the right to speak, and the right to listen. He argued that setting controls on what can be spoken deprives the individual of their right to listen, to process, to consider, and to reply. He openly defended the notion of the absolute right of free speech—even for those who lack manners, judgment, and sanity.

With this in mind, we consider the flip side of the coin: freedom of speech is extended without limits.

A controversial debate is the potential for hate speech to lead to positive outcomes. When hate speech is experienced by a society, it allows the opportunity for those in opposition to analyse and critique the opinions proffered, thereby inducing an informed debate. This discourse can be used to bring groups closer together and promote engagement and the exchange of ideas in the process. Once we, as a society, become accustomed and adept at these conversations, there is potential to “build immunity to taking offence” as the comedian Rowan Atkinson infers in his impassioned defence of the Reform Section 5 campaign. Atkinson’s mantra for tackling hate speech is more speech, to tackle an “intolerance of intolerance” which he sees as a false remedy.

Though wholly well-intentioned, this feels like a naive way to view the current situation due to the “rationality ejection” mentioned above. There seems to be very little one can gain through attempts at discourse with aggrieved extremists of any background (illustrated recently in the intense but disturbing documentary, Angry, White and Proud), in the same way little can be gained by holding a white flag in the path of a runaway train.

Free speech is also seen as crucial to an individual’s ability to “self-actualise.” If a person sees the proclamation and proliferation of their views as necessary to achieve their self-actualisation—thus realising their personal potential—then any barriers encountered will naturally be met by frustration, resistance and anger. Whether the un-qualification of full freedom of speech would therefore lead to a happier society where the various goals of self-actualisation are mutually exclusive, though, is debatable. One could think of a sea of irresistible forces meeting a forest of immovable objects.

Utopia versus War of the Worlds

Consider a hypothetical world with no restriction on free speech of any sort. Two opposing extremes could reasonably be foreseen, using the UK as an example:

Scenario 1: War of the Worlds

The UK Home Secretary announces that the barriers to any kind of free speech have been removed, and all opinions, however offensive, disgusting and inflammatory, are passable in public.

Religious and political fundamentalists increase their visibility, holding rallies for their supporters and openly recruiting in the streets. Leaflets, pamphlets and social media denouncing non-believers litter the consciences of public.

In response, groups of nationalists seeking to defend the British way of life band together, holding rallies for their supporters and openly recruiting in the streets. They hold marches to show strength and solidarity, and denounce the religious groups seeking to force their beliefs on the UK.

Young, impressionable minds are drawn to various extreme ideologies, fuelled by the charisma of their leaders and utter-conviction of their principles. Distrust grows. Heated exchanges often lead to violence, with no group willing to give an inch. Rational voices are drowned out by extreme views in the media.

The country becomes divided. A broken society, with cracks becoming crevasses…

Scenario 2: Paradise Found

The UK Home Secretary announces that the barriers to any kind of free speech have been dropped, and all opinions, however offensive, disgusting and inflammatory, are passable in public.

Those who hold extreme views take to the podiums, altars and stages, inciting violence and discrimination.

Society, blessed with a highly educated and reasonable majority, resists the extremism. Inflammatory views are scrutinised, taken apart, traced to their origins, and questioned, both in public and private. Satire becomes a weapon of the masses, holding up poisonous ideologies to ridicule.

Discussions are held. Deep, probing, informed discussions, at work; at home; at school; at the gym and in bars. People with opposing viewpoints from all kinds of backgrounds, thrown together in the UK cultural melting pot, take it upon themselves to address differences and exchange views with each other through reasonable discourse. Community is built across ethnicities, religions and political leanings to build an acceptance of, but immunity from, intolerance. Conditioned from exposure, people become less offended by hate speech, instead their resolution is reinforced.

Gradually, hatred is replaced by rationality, a polite and compassionate acceptance of different beliefs and perspectives.

Which proposed scenario is more likely? Although there may exist pockets of each, realistically society would linger somewhere in the middle.

Freedom of speech

The most important response to the Charlie Hebdo attack then, has not been legislative or authoritarian. The most powerful outcome has been the collective solidarity that huge numbers of people have shown, towards the defence of the right to freedom of expression. But what version of freedom of expression are we defending—the qualified or the unqualified?

Personally, this author would love nothing more than to say the latter, giving any excuse to run down the street reciting Voltaire’s saying of “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” to my buddies as they make fun of my favourite sports team, question my political allegiances, or even take the mick out of my parentage (though, it should be noted, even the Pope doesn’t allow this).

But the truth is that this entire debate is not centred on the relatively moderate and secular views and beliefs of myself and countless others. Whatever it is about my upbringing and the development of my beliefs about the world, it is highly unlikely for me to resort to violence as a result of someone else’s words, however disagreeable. The danger, and the reason for control on freedom of speech, is down to those to whom being offended is the trigger for deadly action. Whilst the limit on freedom of speech does not impact most people on a day-to-day basis, it places a restriction in law on those who would encourage violence and retribution against others, or who would encourage persecution of specific groups. This author, for one, will not be dying for anyone’s right to action the aforementioned anytime soon.

The UK is not Saudi Arabia, where Raif Badawi, a pro-liberal blogger, was recently flogged after online criticism of his nation’s government—an act banned by law. We can (and some would say, should) slag off our government. We can publicly state our opposition to the Royal Family. We can even question the existence of a divine entity. All of the above, protected by law, should not be taken for granted. What we cannot do is incite hatred, and that is a restriction on our liberty we should be happy to live with.

This author, for one, longs for a day where the limitation on free speech will be removed. A day where, after years, perhaps decades, of education, integration, and discourse between disagreeing voices carry us through conflict to a social paradise where the UK is free of hatred, accepting of all cultures and beliefs but alive with healthy debate, discussion, and exchanges. The limits on free speech as it stands act in the same way as stabilisers on a bicycle, attempting to control the risk of danger and injury until we are able to ride on freely ourselves as a society, shouting “look, no hands!” as the streets are lined with proud onlookers—an Englishman, an Irishman, a Chinese-man, a Muslim, a Catholic, a Protestant, a homosexual, a trans-gendered person, a disabled person, and many more—all applauding the wonderful achievement to which each had contributed in some way.

With the show of strength, unity, and determination of the people who took to the streets in Paris and around the world to commemorate the deaths of 12 people and support freedom of the press, we can live and hope that this day is not as far away as it may seem. Any one of us could have been Charlie; Charlie would have been proud.

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