Free speech means nothing without the right to offend

The latest edition of Evangelicals Now carries an article which asks the question should free speech include the right to intentionally offend? Disappointingly, the author seems to conclude that it should not. He states “Freedom of speech should not mean freedom to say anything. Cartoons that diminish people by ridiculing their faith come into the category of journalistic jihadi and are on a par with hate speech.”

Almost everybody agrees there should be some boundaries to free speech. The vast majority of people accept slander and liable to be legitimate limits. Most agree that it is not acceptable to spout, or print, lies about others. Many, though not all, believe words that are liable to incite violence should not sit within the bounds of free speech. Others are quite happy to disallow anything termed “hate speech”, which includes anti-religious sentiments and racially motivated comments among other things. We are now moving toward a situation where some even consider offensive language to be unacceptable.

The problem with “hate speech” or “offensive language” is that such terms are so nebulous and subjective that the range of things disallowed is enormous. The world is full of people waiting to be offended or deem words hateful. In recent years, there have been multiple stories of police action against street preachers, protesters and political activists on such grounds. When anti-terror legislation – intended to suppress acts of violence against the country – is used to eject elderly gentlemen who object to party speeches (see here) we have undoubtedly pressed the limits of free speech too far.

I am wholly for liable and slander legislation. Indeed, these are civil laws that do not tend to lead to imprisonment but damages and reparation (and rightly so). Though I have some sympathy with the thought behind legislation that prohibits incitement to violence, I am not so sure this should be considered a legal offence (see here). I am absolutely sure that neither “hate speech” nor offensive language should be considered illegal (see here, here, here, here, here, here and here).

The line between “hate speech” and “offensive language” is not clear cut. It is most certainly offensive to spout racist insults in the street. In fact, we may call this hateful. There is nothing good, endearing or acceptable about it. Yet, offensive as such repugnant views may be banning their very utterance won’t change the attitudes of those who express them. If such views turn into harassment, assault or worse we have laws to address such behaviour that cover all people regardless of gender, creed, colour or sexuality. I don’t care if somebody assaults me because of something about my person to which they take exception. I simply care that they assaulted me and I want them treated as anybody else who may have assaulted anybody else for any other reason.

We may find Charlie Hebdo unnecessarily inflammatory and offensive. If that is the case, the answer is not to ban it but not to buy it. Offence over what they print is no reason to ban them from printing it. Free speech should include the right to intentionally offend. In fact, free speech means nothing without the right to offend. Christians are well aware that the gospel is a cause of offence (cf. Rom 9:33; 1 Cor. 1:23; 1 Pet 2:8) and yet we rightly continue to preach it regardless. If we demand the right to offend through the preaching of the gospel (as well we ought), we must accept that others should also have the right to offend us.