Letters: Free speech means free to offend


Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing about the Muslim protests, should spare us her straw-man argument (24 September). Very few people argue for absolute freedom of expression, which would include that universally condemned liberty to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theatre.

What is at stake is the freedom to criticise and lampoon religious beliefs, which must take their chance with all other ideas and beliefs in the rough-and-tumble of public debate, whether or not their adherents claim to be offended. We could all claim to be offended by satire of our cherished beliefs, but if you concede the right not to be offended, criticism and debate will be reduced to banalities.

Violence and threats of violence by religious believers against putative blasphemers must not be allowed to silence and intimidate critics and turn back the clock to pre-Enlightenment times. 

I therefore commend Charlie Hebdo for what I take to be a courageous stand against the creeping self-censorship which is chilling healthy debate. All religions and all beliefs need to be subject to fearless examination, and open to mockery of any absurdities, empty pretensions, misplaced reverence, groundless claims, contradictions and repressive tendencies which critics happen to identify in them.

Michael McCarthy

London W13

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown complains that freedom of speech is being used to attack Muslim beliefs. This is not the first time that religious groups have tried to suppress free speech, with disastrous consequences for truth.

The most infamous example is that of Galileo, who was threatened with torture by the Roman Catholic Church, and sentenced to house arrest for life, for daring to claim that the Earth went round the Sun. 

We should be very careful when other groups of religious people try to take away our right to free speech – they too may simply be trying to prevent truth from emerging.

David Love

Torquay, Devon

Reading Kartar Uppal (letter, 24 September) and Francis Beswick (25 September) trading contradictory religious truths makes me thank God I'm an atheist.

Dan Kantorowich

Brigstock, Northamptonshire

Toffs, plebs and Cameron's judgement

David Cameron has said that he has full confidence in Chief Whip Andrew "Thrasher" Mitchell. That should be an end to it. The PM has spoken. Any questions?

Er, yes. Mr Cameron also had full confidence that Andy Coulson was a fit and proper person to head Tory party communications; full confidence in Liam "I take my best man to work with me" Fox as Defence Secretary; in the appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Health Secretary after his performance as Culture Secretary... the list goes on.

How much longer can we afford to have a PM whose judgement has so often been shown to be flawed in such a short time in office?

Martin Wallis

Shipdham, Norfolk

Andrew Mitchell's rudeness to the duty police officer exemplifies more than the all-too-familiar arrogance of maverick politicians. It exemplifies the arrogance of all too many cyclists.

For some, cycling seems to become a privileged activity. The irrational status it acquires in their minds seems to extend to themselves. Woe betide anyone who dares to challenge their right to cycle wherever and however they wish.

R W Chaplin


Without excusing Andrew Mitchell's discourteous language, I would be interested to hear in what manner the police addressed him; we may assume they spoke to him first.

There is a curious feature of the British psyche, that anyone on a bike, whatever the circumstances, is there to be lectured like an errant child.

Roy Spilbury

Penmaenmawr, Conwy

So, the Government Chief Whip turned up on a bicycle, and a policeman refused to open the gates for him. Did the policeman think that, because he was on a bicycle, not in a limousine, he was a pleb?

Jean Elliott

Upminster, Essex

Andrew Mitchell has had the decency, as would be expected from a member of the Cabinet, to apologise to both the Prime Minister and a police officer for addressing that officer disrespectfully. As he insists with belligerent certainty that he did not use the offensive words attributed to him, he must certainly know which words he did use to occasion the earnest apologies he felt the need to offer. What were those words, Mr Mitchell?

Ray Farnham

Chislehurst, Kent

In the course of their duties policeman acquire a vast knowledge of four-letter words. "Pleb" is not one of them. It seems unlikely that a police officer wishing to embellish the abuse offered by Mitchell would note that particular word down if it had not been used. Unless the police officer studied Latin at school, which cannot be excluded, this would suggest, sadly, that on balance the word "pleb" was used and some members of the Nasty Party are still around.

A J Caston

Tervuren, Belgium

In answer to your correspondent asking why it is acceptable to call people toffs but not plebs (25 September), toff is a term for those deluded by their privilege, while pleb is a term used by the deluded to justify abusing that privilege.

Sean Barker


The Lib Dems need Clegg

Having spent the weekend at the Liberal Democrats' conference at Brighton, I have heard and seen Nick Clegg in the flesh rather than as reported in the media. As a result, I am convinced that the Liberal Democrats would be crazy to get rid of him as party leader.

Nick Clegg is a good and, at times, inspirational speaker. He is young enough to have the energy and technical know-how needed by a political leader in the 21st century. He has immense courage to remain apparently unmoved by the continuous media criticisms levelled at him over the past months. Above all, he is a true liberal and a paid-up member of the human race.

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable, with his business experience and down-to-earth common sense, will form a very powerful partnership working together for the success of the party.

Andrew Sturgis

Hersham, Surrey

The Liberal Democrat conference offers a wonderful study in dysfunctionality.

All the liberal utterances about hitting the rich harder, state banks and fairer tax systems sound great. In the past it was always understood that the Liberal Democrats could say these things because they would never be in government. Now the Liberal Democrats continue to say these things, knowing that nothing they do will make them happen even though they are part of the Government.

The reality of the Liberal Democrats in government is that they are simply propping up one of the most right-wing Conservative administrations seen in recent times. It is a role that amounts to the ultimate betrayal of liberal values and of the electorate – a situation that can only be remedied with a call from the conference for an end to the Coalition Government.

Paul Donovan

London E11

Population of a Danish island

It is ironic that, of all places, it is the island of Fyn that has had the idea of giving parents "copulation time" ("Danes offered child-free 'copulation time'" 15 September).

In 1858, the Rev Otto Diederich Lutken, rector of a parish on the Danish island of Fyn, wrote: "Since the circumference of the globe is given and does not expand with the increased number of its inhabitants, and as travel to other planets thought to be inhabitable has not yet been invented; since the earth's fertility cannot be extended beyond a given point... the proposition that the world's inhabitants will be happier, the greater their number cannot be maintained, for as soon as the number exceeds that which our planet... can support, they must needs starve one another out."

Roger Plenty

Stroud, Gloucestershire

A memory of forgetfulness

Your correspondents point to the problems associated with Michael Gove's return to exams that rely heavily on the memory of facts. Some years ago I recall speaking to a retired US General who had been in charge of the US Army Training and Doctrine Command.

He had, as an experiment, stopped the coach transporting recruits from a training unit where the day before they had taken their final exams. He turned the bus around and got the recruits to re-take the exam. More than 30 per cent of those who had passed the day before failed the second time.

I am also reminded of Einstein's comment: "Never memorise something that you can look up."

Chris Elshaw

Headley Down, Hampshire

Michael Gove should take a real "step back in time" and bring back the School Certificate. Students would need five passes to get the full certificate, with the brightest and best obtaining matriculation, and going on to sixth form and university. At least we could be sure of our children getting a properly rounded education.

Alan Carcas

Liversedge, West Yorkshire

Protect the poor

In the Lib Dems' recent party-political broadcast, Nick Clegg claimed that one of their primary objectives is to "protect the vulnerable in these difficult times". In this case, could he ask his colleague Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, to act on the interest rates being charged by short-term loan companies. In The Independent last week, James Moore revealed that the poorest in society are subjected to intertest rates in excess of 4,000 per cent. This is morally indefensible, as is the Government's failure to do anything about it.

Keith O'Neill


Tax demand

Hearty congratulations to The Intruders (report, 25 September). Their protest at the New College, Oxford, tax avoidance (sorry, "planning") dinner strikes me as admirably creative and witty. And the self-revelatory remark by their ejector – "Leave before we set the dogs on you" – makes Andrew Mitchell sound like a true socialist.

Pass the port!

Ian Bartlett

East Molesey, Surrey