Is free speech offensive?

By Claire Fox | 19 January 2015
  • Claire Fox

One consequence of the shocking massacres in Paris is the world-wide focus on the importance of free speech. The #JeSuisCharlie slogan has been adopted by millions of people and embraced by politicians. While the huge rallies have been inspiring, and just as the new edition of Charlie Hebdo sells out a print run of five million, the new-found commitment to the right to be offensive is already looking fragile.

The threat is coming less from AK47-wielding jihadists, and more from a deeper ambivalence about free expression. So while it’s fashionable now to cry press freedom in defence of a French satirical magazine, radical campaigners in Britain demand that ‘offensive’ Page 3 images are banned and lads-mags and removed from supermarket shelves.

Free-press campaigner and journalist Mick Hume argued: ‘The murderers acted as the armed wing of today’s ‘you can’t say that’ culture.’ This might sound harsh, but he has a point. Who has done most to perpetrate the idea that the right not to be offended is legitimate?

Such censorious squeamishness has its roots as much in town halls as Islamic theology or Middle East war-zones. The gunmen who attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo aimed to silence the satirical cartoonists for drawing offensive images of the prophet Mohammed.

With the same moral certainty, claims of offence are routinely accepted by councils as sufficient to chill free expression.

Sadly, local government has been at the forefront of institutionalising this thin-skinned attitude. Many in social housing departments cheered when Clintons Cards was forced to withdraw its ‘offensive, outrageous, insulting’ Christmas card featuring a Santa who ‘obviously’ lived on a council estate because of his ‘record for breaking and entering’.

Local politicians congratulated Northumbria Police for arresting a 19-year-old for making a tasteless joke on Twitter about the Glasgow bin-lorry crash.

In January, the Labour Party suspended Nottingham CC’s Rosemary Healy for re-tweeting a picture of a Conservative poster doctored to show a Nazi death camp, even though she quickly deleted the tweet and expressed her ‘profound apologies’.

So, if someone claims some dubious humour is racist, homophobic or sexist, should it be banned? Of course not. Some have labelled Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures as Islamophobic, but so what? We should be robust enough to cope with an offensive joke without lashing out and elevating feelings of hurt over a free society.

While such complaints of offence rarely lead to the brutal outcome we’ve witnessed in Paris, they are regularly accompanied by demands that those who offend should be sanctioned, sacked or even arrested.

Charlie Hebdo could easily be prosecuted for hate speech if tested against councils’ definitions that include ‘any verbal abuse or insults, offensive leaflets, posters, gestures as perceived by the victim or any other person as being motivated by hostility, prejudice or hatred’.

This encourages ‘victims’ to shout offence and expect a clampdown. With such official endorsement for punishing those who give offence, it is no surprise that some extremists will take it to a logical, bloody conclusion.

Councils may mean well, driven by the misguided idea that social cohesion requires enforced respect for all cultures. But tolerance of ideas does not equate with endorsement. Local authorities have internalised an attitude of appeasing cultural grievance, creating a defensive atmosphere of self-censorship.

Such pandering to perceived sensitivities has justifiably earned councils ‘PC gone mad’ ridicule for their bans on everything from flying St George’s flag (‘because of its links to the Crusades…it is offensive to some Muslims’) to celebrating Christmas (Stoke-onTrent council rebranded it as ‘Winterfest’).

A leaked DECC internal memo is beyond parody, reminding staff that they work for ‘an organisation of multi-faiths and agnostics serving a community of the same’; employees were told to ‘think season’s greetings rather than Merry Christmas’.

Of the Christmas cards sent out by 182 town halls across the UK, only one mentioned the birth of Christ.

While commentators ask despairingly why European youth signing up as Islamist terrorists are turning their back on Western values, this is an illustration of a municipal loss of confidence in Western culture.

This atmosphere is destroying political debate as well. In recent weeks, a UKIP councillor, Richard Hilton, reported Morden primary teacher Jackie Schneider for sending ‘offensive’ tweets during a public meeting.

Keresley Parish councillor Kevin Maton was referred to the council’s monitoring officer after being caught on camera muttering ‘offensive’ language “under his breath” at a heated meeting about housing.

MP Anna Soubry has demanded that the leader of a Nottinghamshire council, Milan Radulovic, apologises for using ‘completely unacceptable…inexcusable’ language during a row on Facebook about extending the city’s tram network.

For goodness sake, let’s hope politicians get over this hyper-sensitive attitude to harmless words. If you’re annoyed by objectionable viewpoints, have the courage to take people up in mature argument rather than conforming to a stifling censorious climate.

In 2015, with the General Election on the horizon, if we make ‘Je Suis Charlie’ more than an empty slogan, we may avoid sanitising much-needed political debate.

Claire Fox is the director of the Institute of Ideas

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