Leading article: A right that comes with a moral responsibility

Share

Our society's confidence in the principle of free speech has come under severe strain of late. The global conflagration sparked by the publication of cartoons of Mohamed in a Danish newspaper has forced us to consider the price of the freedom of expression. So too has the journey to the statute book of the Government's anti-religious hatred legislation. And the stark contrast between Abu Hamza's conviction for stirring up racial hatred and the acquittal of the BNP leader Nick Griffin on similar charges last week poses some tricky questions about what it is permissible to say in Britain. Everywhere, there seems to be confusion and doubt about this fundamental liberal principle.

It is worth examining what free speech really means. Even its stoutest defenders would concede that it has to be constrained by the laws prohibiting libel or incitement to violence. But are there other, less tangible, limits? Let us consider how the concept of free speech has evolved historically. Demands for a "right" to free speech emerged as a reaction to the arbitrary silencing of opposition voices by monarchs and governments.

Yet what we are dealing with today in the West are not questions of state or monarchical interference in freedom of expression but questions of moral responsibility by the media and public figures. Arguments about state censorship in Britain are, thankfully, a thing of the past. This changes the way we ought to approach questions ostensibly about the non-negotiable principle of free speech. Proclaiming an "absolute" right to say what one believes makes sense in a context where autocratic governments are shutting down printing presses and closing radio stations (as still happens in many parts of the world). But when such arguments are applied to third-rate cartoons of the revered prophet of all Muslims, those cries lose much of their moral authority.

Some will argue that what we are advocating is self-censorship, little better than censorship by the state. But we think differently. Consider political correctness. This is viewed by some as a wicked curb on their freedom of speech. The refrain, "of course, we're not allowed to say that now", usually after some grossly offensive remark about a minority group, is common. Yet our society is much healthier now that most people think before they speak and most newspapers are thoughtful about what they publish. One reason the speeches of Mr Griffin and Abu Hamza are so shocking is precisely because they were made in a country that now reflexively rejects such volatile language.

The right to free speech must, of course, be absolute in a legal sense. The power of the state must never be allowed to undermine our legitimate freedom of expression. It is comforting that demands by Middle Eastern autocracies for European governments to punish offending newspapers have been dismissed out of hand. But it is nevertheless desirable that what individuals or institutions say or publish should to be constrained by more than just the laws of the land.

It is a fine line. As technological advances bring the world closer together, we will be posed with increasingly difficult questions about what is gratuitously offensive and what the public has a real interest in hearing regardless. However much we should strive to limit offence, there must never be a situation in which people have a legal right not to be offended. But these are questions that must be viewed through the prism of a diverse society and one in which we each bear a responsibility to consider the implications of what we say, write and depict. We should be pleased that Britain is developing into a country where tolerance - rather than the right to offend - is valued most highly.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

ERP Business/ Implementation Analyst

£40000 - £45000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: This is an e...

M&E Construction Planner Solihull

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Car, Healthcare, Pensions: Progressive Recruitment...

Senior Java Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Leading Sof...

Chemistry Teacher

£90 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education are looking fo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Assistant Editor: Domestic violence is no petty matter

Siobhan Norton
 

There’s nothing wrong with GM

Steve Connor
A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried