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On freedom of speech and causing offence

Posted by James Hammerton @ 1:48 am on 2 February, 2006.
Categories political liberties.
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Over on my other blog I’ve been discussing the Danish cartoons controversy. To quote the most pertinent point I wished to make:

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.

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