Why freedom of speech must include the right to offend

There is a lot of controversy surrounding the publication, last year, by Danish newspaper Jyllends-Posten of some cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed (in Islam, depicting the Prophet is apparently forbidden). See for example coverage at Samizdata and The Pub Philosopher. The reaction of Muslims has ranged from street protests and boycotts of Danish products, through to death threats, threats of terrorist attacks in Denmark, warnings to Scandinavians not to enter Palestine, withdrawal of diplomatic relations from Denmark by Arab states, and Islamic countries lobbying the UN to pass a resolution banning attacks on religious beliefs. See my usenet article on uk.politics.misc for details.

One of the criticisms I’ve seen levelled at those who have published the cartoons is that by publishing the cartoons they were offending/insulting Muslims. I have, for example, seen (via a comment at Samizdata — a comment robustly responded to by other commenters and the editors of Samizadata, e.g. see the link above) the newspapers’ actions compared with shouting insults at someone in the street and freedom of speech described as the freedom to insult.

It is worth considering why freedom of speech is important, including considering why even the right to cause offence should be protected. Fundamentally, in a society where you have freedom of speech, it means that you can say what you believe to be true without reprisal.

It is no good to say, “you are allowed to express yourself so long as you do not offend or insult anyone” for one simple reason: those who would feel (or claim to feel) insulted or offended by the truth would be able to suppress the truth if mere offence or insult was a sufficient reason to prosecute someone. A society which prohibits mere offence, stifles freedom of expression.

Of course this is not an excuse, e.g. to harangue people in the street. However freedom of speech is not the right to force people to listen to you, but rather the right to express your views to anyone willing to listen. Thus when a newspaper publishes a cartoon, only those who chose to read the paper will view the cartoon and they’d be choosing to do so. Many of those who are angry at these cartoons may never have read the paper and may not even have viewed the cartoons themselves. Certainly they won’t have been forced to view them, and they are entirely free to ignore the issue if they so wish.

Freedom of speech, including the freedom to ridicule beliefs we disagree with, is crucial to both scientific inquiry, open debate and a functioning democracy. If I cannot express my political beliefs without fear of reprisal, then democracy is thereby diminished as one view of how society should be run has thereby been cut off from the debate. It seems to me that this freedom has been a major factor in the advance of Western society over the last few centuries.

We should value freedom of speech and defend it against those who’d rather we all submitted to The Truth they believe they’ve had handed down to them from ancient prophets.

Many European newspapers have, in solidarity, published the cartoons, or even published their own cartoons of Mohammed. However not one British newspaper is amongst them, so far, though various British blogs have provided links or published them as well.

To see what all the fuss is about, you can view the cartoons here.

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