Free speech should stretch to ‘grossly offensive’ jokes

Free speech really isn’t a difficult concept. In essence, it means allowing people to say things – even grossly offensive things – without the law penalising them for doing so. It is this basic freedom that essentially allows me and you to say whatever we want without censorship. It permits us to share whatever views we like, in whatever terms we like, without fear that we will be punished for giving voice to things other people don’t like.

Sadly, it seems few seem to fully grasp the nature of this freedom. They appear to believe in free speech until such time as people say or do things that they don’t like. At that point, apparently, speech is not free. Under the broad and decidedly unspecific term ‘hate speech’, all manner of views are deemed inappropriate.

In my most recent comment on this issue, I defended the position that Britain First should not be banned from Facebook (yes, I know). I noted the comments that pretty much sum up every comment on this issue:

  • I don’t like Britain First and their obnoxious and overt racism
  • I don’t like censorship and impediments to free expression
  • It would be far easier to garner support for this argument if I had a sympathetic victim. Sadly, as per usual, the story centres on racists and/or idiots that most people (rightly) don’t like
  • Legal organisations – no matter how odious and vile we find their views – should be permitted to freely express those views
  • The definition of ‘hate’ is so broad and ill-defined as to be incapable of consistent application
  • Free speech should remain just that. Unless there is a direct incitement to physical violence of some sort, there should be no impediment to free expression

I think that basically covers the essence of just about every post on this sort of topic to date such as hereherehereherehere or here among many others. The perpetrators, enforcers and victims may change but the essence of the problem doesn’t. One group says something another doesn’t like and someone, somewhere decides this should be illegal and moves to impede the ability to say it. The rest is all just detail.

This time it isn’t Britain First but a random Scottish bloke making a rubbish and fairly crass joke.

In fact, this case is worse than the one concerning Britain First because Facebook is a private company able to set its own policy on whom it will allow on its platform. It is the company claim to being an ‘open platform’ that caused the problem.

In this case, however, things are different. The miscreant, Mark Meechan, has been found guilty ‘of a charge under the Communications Act that he posted a video on social media and YouTube which was grossly offensive because it was “anti-semitic and racist in nature” and was aggravated by religious prejudice’. This is not a case of YouTube choosing to censor him according to their terms of use as a private platform, it is the state choosing to penalise him for saying some stuff that is deemed ‘grossly offensive’. That, dear friends, is a clear infringement of free speech if ever there was one.

Given that the defendant was support by Tommy Robinson – former leader of the far-right English Defence League (EDL) – it was alluded that the video had been left online to direct people to other material online. That, dear friends, is not just infringement of free speech but also freedom of association (or, at least, guilt by association). As Peter Hitchens so rightly stated in his most recent Mail on Sunday column:

An apparatus of thought policing is already in place in this country. By foolishly accepting bans on Muslim ‘extremists’, we have licensed public bodies to decide that other views, too, are ‘extremist’.

Because the authorities are terrified of upsetting Islam, nothing much will happen to Muslim militants. But conservative and Christian views such as mine will suffer.

Whether you accept the case that the defendant was simply making an ‘offensive joke’ or you buy the argument that he holds hateful views is, frankly, immaterial. It was once agreed that people could say what they want, using whatever language they want and the price of living in a free society was that our feelings could not be spared and we ran the risk that we may be offended. Evidently, no longer.

It is troubling that this sort of authoritarianism can be defended with such statements as ‘the right to freedom of expression also comes with responsibility’. What responsibility do we have, exactly? The responsibility to make sure we never offend? The responsibility to utter only sentiments approved by the state?

That may be wonderful while we’re fining and/or locking up racists. We all hate them with the pure and acceptable kind of hatred the government and most liberals tell us is alright. But what when the things deemed ‘hateful’ come a little closer to home? Free speech only means anything if it permits even the most grossly offensive views that we abhor. If we’re happy to see vile and unpleasant views shut down, what hope do we have when someone inevitably finds some of our views nasty and hateful?

No matter how genteel you believe your views to be, you can always find someone who will take offence. The only guarantee we have that their offence will not be used to bludgeon us into silence with the full force of the law because we made a sly remark amount their funny haircut is that we permit people to spout their own views that we must tolerate. And it bear saying, tolerance is only tolerance when we actually have to tolerate something. If we aren’t bothered by the comment, it’s not tolerance; it’s either agreement or it’s indifference. The strength of our belief in free speech is how far we are prepared to tolerate the vilest of views and most grossly offensive of jokes.

The strength of our belief in free speech can be measured in our willingness to let a dog do a Nazi salute in response to grossly offensive comments about the Jews. We don’t have to find it funny (it isn’t), we don’t have to like it and we don’t have to remain silent on what we think about it. A belief in free speech gives us every right to answer back and make clear just how unpleasant we may find it. But what it doesn’t permit us to do is shut it down and employ the law as a tool for silence. That, dear reader, is fascism.

This is the problem of the language of ‘rights with responsibilities’ and it not meaning ‘freedom from consequence’ (for which read, freedom from punishment). Those advancing these arguments either do not understand totalitarianism or are so blind to their gilded cage because their views have not yet come under scrutiny that, to quote Billy Bragg, they labour under the false assumption that, ‘as long as its comfortable it feels like freedom’. Alas, it has been made decidedly uncomfortable for some who realise their minority views are not free to be uttered. But as long as we can say what we want, who cares right? With the pace of change and speed at which new phobic language takes root, I doubt the Manic Street Preachers were right. If we tolerate this, it won’t be our children who are next, it will be us.