Leading article: This is not just a simple issue of freedoms

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There is, of course, no doubt that newspapers should have the right to print cartoons that some people find offensive. Indeed it goes to the very nature of the political cartoon that it seeks to make a point through exaggeration, distortion and caricature - a process which is, by definition, intended to needle those being criticised, or their supporters. In a free society it is proper that speech, and other forms of expression, should be free. Of course, free societies impose some limits on this, for reasons of public order, or to allow individuals redress through libel laws. But these should remain exceptions, which is why it is good that the Government's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill was this week reined in, and why a jury yesterday felt unable to find the BNP leader Nick Griffin - loathsome though his views may be - guilty of inciting racial hatred. The healthiest reaction to free speech which offends is that those offended have the right to answer back in kind.

But there is an important distinction to be made between having a right and choosing to exercise it. The editor of France Soir had the right to reprint the offending cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that first caused a stir in the Danish press. But in doing so he was throwing petrol on the flames of a fire that shows every sign of turning into an international conflagration. Palestinian gunmen yesterday surrounded the EU offices in Gaza to demand an apology over the cartoons, and Norway felt forced to close its mission in the West Bank to the public after threats from two militant groups. European products are being boycotted across the Middle East and envoys being recalled all round the world. The owner of France Soir is clearly alarmed; he has sacked the editor responsible - for the realpolitik of journalism is that proprietors have rights too, which include firing editors whose judgements run counter to the views of the paper's owner or its commercial interests. This too was a decision that opens up questions that have vital implications for a democracy.

It is facile, in so complex a situation, to seek refuge in simple statements about the rights of a free press. Most difficult decisions are not between right and wrong. They are between competing rights. There is a right to exercise an uncensored pen. But there is also a right for people to exist in a secular pluralist society without feeling as alienated, threatened and routinely derided as many Muslims now do. To elevate one right above all others is the hallmark of a fanatic.

When rights conflict, a mature society talks about responsibilities, and how these should balance against rights. Yes, there is a right to see the offending cartoons, if only to form one's own judgement about the gravity of the offence. But most people have sufficient imagination to conceive what these particular cartoons show without the need to reprint them in a way guaranteed to give further offence to a group whose religious tradition forbids any image of Mohammed. Newspapers ignorant of such a fact do no service to their readers.

The balance here is not in favour of rights but of respect. To reprint the cartoons as a gesture of solidarity with free speech would be disproportionate. To publish them to teach Muslims a lesson about the values of a secular society would be, ultimately, little more than a publicity-seeking stunt - and one that is gratuitously offensive and, ultimately, rather juvenile.

The right to free expression is one that this newspaper defends uncompromisingly. But it would be false to present this solely as a debate about freedom of speech. The media have responsibilities as well as rights. There is a deceptive borderline between controversial and irresponsible journalism. Especially in these troubled times, we all must take care that it is not crossed.

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