How “Free” Is Free Speech?

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.



6 thoughts on “How “Free” Is Free Speech?”

  1. Wow. This was a great, timely and well-thought out post.

    I absolutely do NOT think that we should limit free speech in an attempt to “keep people from being offended.” Seriously pretty much ANYTHING could offend SOMEONE out there. What are we supposed to do, walk around without saying anything to keep from offending people? I’m of the opinion that *adults* need to be able to be offended by someone or something and not fly off the hook about it.

    Yes, people do truly say stupid, hurtful, outright offensive things both spoken and written, but guess what? This is allegedly a free country (this goes for your country and mine) and they have the right to say what they want, offensive as it may be. Also, if we go around limiting free speech on the grounds of causing offense, who are we going to use as the people not to offend? A Christian may be offended by something that a Muslim isn’t offended by, a republican may find something offensive that a democrat finds hilarious and vice versa and so on and so forth. Limiting free speech on the basis of not causing offense would be an awfully slippery slope…

    Sorry to ramble so much – this is an issue near and dear to my heart!


  2. Another thought:
    “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.”

    I agree that there are a very few things that aren’t acceptable to say (crying “fire!!” in a movie house is the classic example at least in the US) and that yes, people can (and should!) be punished for saying slanderous and libelous statements, but I would be so radical as to say that even racist and sexist comments could be considered free speech. Really poor taste for free speech, but again, if you start limiting racist and sexist statements, what’s next? (And what defines sexist, for example? Is saying ” Let me get your brother to help me carry that heavy dresser instead of you since he’s a boy.” sexist? It implies that the boy will be better at something than the girl. So many questions, loopholes, etc…)


  3. WOW..WOW and another WOW! viviellevirgule has definitely got a strong opinion and I agree with every word she has written.
    I think you have opened a ‘can of worms’ with this subject….definitely explosive and definitely something that we all have an opinion on.
    I have always said what I feel and meant what I say, but to a degree I have been careful to whom it was said and when,,,BUT now I have got to 73 years of age I say what I want to anyone I want. whenever I want.
    Free speech should mean freedom to speak how you feel, but nowadays there are so many ‘goody-goodies’ around protecting any words that may be uttered that could cause problems, and before you know where you are ,,,you are in legal broil…trying to defend your right to free speech,

    a good topic!


  4. Kudos, Pam, this is good post.

    Freedom has eroded for years. The intrusion on our rights is deplorable, from what we can eat, to the size of a soda container in New York. Now it’s the freedom of speech.

    Our officials need to learn the difference between slander, the defamation of one’s character, and the right to express how we feel.

    It is an ongoing practice for me not to give others power over my emotions.

    Blessings friend ~ Maxi


  5. I don’t know about the UK, but in the USA, the tendency is to err on the side of free speech (except when it comes to politicians) and let people say what they want, no matter how offensive it is. We’re very committed to allowing freedom of expression and wary of suppression of one’s freedom of speech, no matter how abhorrent. We do have a problem with politicians and their speech, but not citizens. And I think that’s right. Citizens should be allowed to express themselves in any way, even if it offends someone. Be wary of censorship. It could come after you next.


  6. Thank you all for your comments on this. It has been something I’ve been thinking about writing about for some time, but there has been a couple of incidents in the press recently that have prompted me to finally put fingers to keys and get this article written.

    It seems that we all share the view that it is dangerous (and wrong) to apply censorship, and thank you Mary (viviellevirgule) for pointing out that I am actually guilty of censoring myself when I said we shouldn’t say anything racist or sexist. Of course we should be allowed to say those things, distasteful though they may be, and I apologise for being overly politically correct in that sentence.

    This is one of those debates that will run and run and I welcome all feedback and thoughts on how other people see the issue of freedom of speech. Please keep commenting.


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