A 2006 debate, in fact, between myself and Imran Khan (the lawyer not the cricketer) on the issue of Islam, free speech and the Danish cartoons for a special Channel 4 Dispatches programme. I had not realized that the broadcast was available on YouTube. The issues we debated remain strikingly relevant. Perhaps the most telling moment came when the moderator Jon Snow announced an audience poll to see whether the cartoons should be shown on the programme. The audience overwhelmingly voted ‘Yes’. But… you can probably guess what happened next.

I was, however, and still am, deeply infuriated by the way that Channel 4 framed the debate. I had agreed to discuss the question of whether free speech should include the right to offend. Channel 4 wanted to pose it in terms of ‘Muslims versus free speech’, which I rejected. I got an agreement from the producers that the final question to the audience would not be ‘Are Muslims a threat to free speech?’, as was originally proposed, but ‘Should free speech include the right to give offence?’ On the night of the debate, however, the producers restored the original question without informing me. Afterwards, Channel 4 claimed to have got the questions ‘muddled up’. As if.

Channel 4’s attitude was symptomatic of the way that people think about these issues today: a combination of cowardice when it comes to defending free speech and the right to give offence, combined with a desire to single out Muslims as the problem. As I put it in the conclusion of my interview last year with Flemming Rose, the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten which originally published the Danish cartoons:

Both sides… have hijacked the issue of free speech, bending and distorting the concept of liberty until it has become almost meaningless. On the one side are those who ostensibly defend free speech, but do so only in tribal terms, for whom the defence of free speech is a weapon to be wielded by the West against Islam…  On the other are those who ostensibly defend liberties, and Muslims, but only by constraining free speech, incarcerating the very means by which we are able to think and debate and argue, and to create a more progressive society. Both sides are, in their different ways, enemies of free speech, of liberty, of our essential humanness.

Or,  as Salman Rushdie asks in The Satanic Verses of his two anti-heroes, Saladin Chamcha and Gibreel Farishta, ‘For are they not conjoined opposites, these two, each man the other’s shadow?’

For more reading on free speech, see ‘The pleasures of pluralism, the pain of offence’, ‘Why hate speech should not be banned’, ‘On the right to satirise, provoke and be downright offensive’, ‘Shadow of the fatwa’, ‘Out of bounds’, ‘Offending the audience’‘Freedom of expression must include the license to offend’‘To name the unnameable’,  ‘Free speech and cultural sensitivities: A debate’, ‘The wrong solution to the wrong problem’.


  1. Erik Bleich

    I think you pose a false dichotomy–or at least an overly-simplistic one. One can be for the right to offend, yet against speech that stirs up hatred or provokes violence. These are shades of grey, not black and white. I agree that some commentators take it to the extremes you mention, but most intelligent people are simply trying to work out an appropriate balance between protecting free speech and protecting human dignity and social cohesion by limiting no-holds-barred racism. Many European countries’ laws do a credible job of striking this balance, wouldn’t you say?

    • There is indeed a distinction between giving offence and fomenting hate, a distinction that I have constantly drawn, though I do so differently from you. Hate speech certainly needs to be challenged. In my view ‘to argue for free speech but not to utilize it to challenge obnoxious, odious and hateful views seems to me immoral. It is morally incumbent on those who argue for free speech to stand up to racism and bigotry’. But the fact that hate speech is morally and politically objectionable does not mean that it should be illegal. And so, no, European countries’ laws do not get it right. They mostly confuse offence and hate speech, and they ban that which should not be banned.

  2. Jeremy Rodell

    This comes back to the “right to shout fire in a crowded theatre” argument. It’s not black and white, either in the sense of the balance between freedom of speech and freedom from violence resulting from incitement, or in the sense of the balance between the limits imposed by the law and the limits we impose on ourselves.

    On balance, I think the law is right to curtail freedom of speech where it is an incitement to violence.

    And yes, we all have a right to be gratuitously offensive, but, in my view, we also have a responsibility to think whether it’s kind or helpful. Sometimes it’s unavoidable: if someone finds it offensive simply for me to state that I’m an Atheist/Humanist, then that’s a problem for them. But if I then go on to say, for example, that all Muslims are terrorists, when I live in a city where over 10% of the inhabitants are Muslims (and are obviously not terrorists), then I’m still within my legal rights, but not within the bounds of good or constructive behaviour.

    • ‘The law is right to curtail freedom of speech where it is an incitement to violence’.

      Indeed, that’s exactly what I argue. The corollary of that argument, however, is that, where hate speech is concerned, the law should not curtail freedom of speech where there is no incitement to violence. That is also what I argue.

      ‘We all have a right to be gratuitously offensive, but, in my view, we also have a responsibility to think whether it’s kind or helpful’.

      Sure, there is always a distinction between the right to do something and the wisdom of exercising that right in particular ways. Take, for instance, The Innocence of Muslims, the risibly crude and bigoted anti-Muslim video that provoked so much controversy and violence last year. I would defend the right of such a film to be made. But I would also question the wisdom of making it, and would strongly challenge the sentiments expressed in it.

      Having said this, however, there are also a couple of other points to add. First, the fact that it may not be wise for X to exercise a right in a particular way should have no bearing on whether X should possess that right in the first place. And second, there is nothing unwise or problematic, in and of itself, about giving offence. The trouble is we have increasingly as a society come to imagine that there is, and therefore increasingly to self-censor in a pernicious fashion.

  3. A. Nasher

    isn’t it misleading to call it free speech when there are restrictions on it, rather it should be called restricted speech.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: