How “Free” Is Free Speech?
It is an age old question – how “free” is free speech? In democratic societies such as ours, we are entitled to express our opinion and to say what we feel about things. But more and more often we see that people expressing their opinion publicly are facing backlashes and punishment for causing offence to other people.
The argument runs that yes, you are entitled to free speech but only as long as it doesn’t offend anyone else. Well that’s not “free” speech is it? If I were to make a statement along the lines of “our prime minister is a weak man and is incapable of leading our country” and someone takes offence at the word “incapable” or “weak” then I could be prosecuted for causing offence. But what about my opinion that he is incapable of doing the job he has been elected to do? Isn’t that justified even though someone somewhere found it offensive that I criticised our leader?
You could argue that whoever it is who was upset by my statement is being silly and shouldn’t be offended by my words and that I am perfectly entitled to express my opinion.
But how about if I made insensitive comments about something else? Perhaps I criticised our military presence in Afghanistan, or made a joke about a recently deceased celebrity? What would happen to me if I touched a nerve somewhere and caused offence there? Would my poor judgement be punished by prosecution, or should it just be written off as just that – poor judgement?
We have all seen poor taste jokes haven’t we, either by email or text, or on Facebook or Twitter. There was a plethora of these jokes when Michael Jackson died, and more recently when Whitney Houston died. I remember when the Chinese cockle-pickers drowned in Morecambe Bay there were many poor taste jokes being flung about, and no, I didn’t like them and I didn’t pass any of them on (I never do). But was I offended? Well, perhaps yes, but I wouldn’t have pursued it.
Why? Because I recognised them for what they were and that is bad jokes in poor taste spread by people of limited intelligence at a time that sensitivity should have been exercised.
But what about more recent events, such as the tragic disappearance and presumed murder of April Jones last week? A man has been found guilty today of posting an offensive comment on Facebook about it and has been jailed for 12 weeks as punishment. Now, without knowing exactly what he said it is impossible to judge whether that was justified, but obviously the person who complained that it was offensive did, as did the police and the judge who sentenced him. But…just because it upset somebody, did it warrant prosecution?
This sort of thing is not uncommon in a world where we value free speech, and we are in danger of undermining that value if we don’t challenge what is and what isn’t allowed as “free” speech.
I agree that free speech has responsibilities attached to it, such as the responsibility not to say anything that is defamatory, libellous, racist, sexist etc, but free speech – even poor taste or poorly judged statements – should be allowed to be expressed freely.
Maybe the difference in that case (what that man posted on Facebook) was that he was intentionally offensive and that’s why he was punished, but without knowing the details we will never know. What bothers me is that this isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened and it is highly unlikely to be the last, particularly as the explosion in social media continues.
But how do you prove intent when it comes to causing offence? Because frankly, someone somewhere is always going to be offended by someone somewhere else. It’s human nature. For all I know I have offended my readers here with my views on freedom of speech. Does that mean that I should expect a knock on the door from the police because I have spoken up for free speech??
I haven’t intended to offend anyone, I assure you!! But I am interested to know what you think: what limits should be put on free speech? Should any limits at all be put on it? What about poor taste/poor judgement – does the freedom to express distasteful opinions have to come at the risk of prosecution? Should we “man up” a bit and not be so sensitive about things? Should we not be so quick to be offended by other people’s opinions? Or should we be cracking down on people who do post offensive material online and should we be punishing them more heavily for being distasteful? Are we too lenient with online comments that are hurtful or potentially offensive?
I’m interested to know your thoughts. Are we in danger of going too far at curbing “free” speech, or should we be going further to make sure people are policed more online and brought to account when they upset others? Let me know what you think.