Should freedom of speech give the right to offend?

By William Hallowell | Editor

"We're Living In A Police State" by Lorie Shaull

If the state imposes sanctions on speech which does not cause deliberate, targeted violence, it is not a democracy. 


What constitutes freedom of speech is subjective. Whilst the general concept of the right to do and say anything without persecution of the state may be a widely accepted definition of the concept, in the eyes of some there are clear exceptions.


To argue whether or not freedom of speech should give the right to offend, one of two positions must be universally accepted; either free speech should be protected and also be absolute – or it should not. Whilst there may be debate around whether in theory, freedom of speech should or shouldn’t be absolute, what also must be considered is whether it is or isn’t absolute in practice.


In theory, free speech should be absolute. In a liberal democracy anybody should be able to say anything without state sanction. To oppose this viewpoint would be entirely autocratic and hard to justify to the moderate majority – in the west we do not endure state-sanctioned killing, restricted press freedoms or secret police as seen is Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. Therefore, in theory, in a democratic society freedom of speech should be absolute.


In practice, freedom of speech is not absolute – and it never will be, so long as the police can investigate racist comments made by Twitter users, and so long as the modern left continue to pursue ‘cancel culture’, ‘no-platforming’ and the cracking down on what is only a subjective concept: ‘hate speech’. This is the expression of prejudices held; homophobia, racism, transphobia, sexism etc. without the intent to cause violence towards these communities. Whether this is right or wrong, offensive or not – at what point does the suppression of ‘hate speech’ sanctioned by the state and carried about by the police become applicable to other views? Racism itself is subjective; some carry the notion that Brexiteers are racist because a large proportion voted to tighten border restrictions, end freedom of movement from EU member-states to the UK and pursue the Conservative Party’s pledge to a ‘points based immigration system’. Taking an anti-immigration stance is not an equivalent to racism, and the Remainers who push this are only seeking to demonise opposition – either that or they are genuinely deluded.


A questionable example of supposed ‘hate speech’ in which the police were involved was that of conservative commentator Darren Grimes. On a podcast he hosted, Historian David Starkey who appeared as a guest on one episode said there were ‘so many damned blacks’ in a conversation around the Black Lives Matter movement and slavery. These comments were appalling and should be condemned – but do they warrant a prison sentence? No. The most absurd part was the fact that Grimes himself was investigated by police for the words of his guest! In what liberal – or even logical – world would this occur? If Grimes had been arrested and charged, that could have easily set the precedent for a police state – and in such, freedom of speech does not exist.


Some refuse to acknowledge ‘hate speech’ as a concept to endorse as it is seen as opposition to freedom of speech, which some view should be absolute. Racist views are wrong. Racism should be stamped out; but education and debate is the way forward – not outright imprisoning racists – because at what point can a clear definition of racism or racist views be defined and thus used as a guidance for government policy for stamping it out, if it is subjective in the first place? Education of racists could be seen as rehabilitation – a favoured policy against harsher sentencing by the very people who encourage cancel culture and no-platforming typically right-wing viewpoints in the first place.


In a civilised society there is absolutely no place for any forms of prejudice against any particular group; so putting a blanket ban on people who are, would mean that anyone could be arrested and imprisoned for saying something that isn’t at all prejudiced and because absolute freedom of speech is nothing other than an ideal – as opposed to a reality – it cannot be universally defined and agreed. Most would agree that free speech should be enjoyed by all up until the point it causes deliberate harm or violence towards a targeted community – whether this is the LGBT community, the BAME community or a particular religion. However, this is still a subjective viewpoint.


Therefore, should freedom of speech give the right to offend? In a civilised, open society: yes – because only through debate and understanding can a society progress and reform. Offence caused by a verbal nature should not warrant imprisonment; actively seeking to cause harm – or even death – to any community should. This is a fairly reasonable argument. Far-right hate groups like Tommy Robinson’s EDL should not be tolerated in a civilised, western society, but expressing distain at ethnic minorities – whilst wholly condemnable and should not be tolerated – should not be considered hate speech because, then, at what point, does the right to say anything (subjectively) offensive become manipulated by an oppressive regime?


If the state introduces sanctions on speech which may be considered morally wrong or controversial, but doesn't incite harm or violence towards any particular targeted group, it is no longer liberal or democratic. 

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El Tel
8 months ago

Hi Will
Not considering myself as an intellectual I find a lot of this a bit complicated. Freedom of speech, yes, but not hiding behind Twitter or other platform to say stuff which one would not dare say face to face, definitely ‘No’. Social media is the coward’s way.