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.Reuse content