Missing the point

Free Speech is meant to offend.

I’m amazed that no one seems to get this. Time after time, I hear the argument that a particular piece should not have been published because it was too offensive.

During the row over a series of cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten for example, French President Jacques Chirac condemned ‘manifest provocations’ [ les provocations manifestes] by the press, announcing that “Free speech must be exercised in a spirit of responsibility”. [La liberté d’expression doit s’exercer dans un esprit de responsabilité]

A few weeks later, Trinity College Dublin pulled a satirical student magazine called Piranha after it used ‘offensive language’ in an article on the Muslim reaction to the cartoons.

There is no doubt that the piece, headlined ‘Stinking sand niggers outraged by Danish slight on their towel-headed religion’ was designed to cause outrage. Most to the 1500 copies of the magazine were collected and destroyed, and the surviving few are now collectors items. Piranha! has now been put into limbo, and the student publications committee has donated €1000 to charity – presumably the budget no longer earmarked for Piranha!

More disquieting though is that other college publications agreed not to report what happened to Piranha! or the article. And as the one who pays the piper, there’s an argument that the college has a say in what gets published in Piranha! But there’s something disturbing about censoring the act of censorship itself.

The Sunday Times reported that the college said it withdrew Piranha! ‘because of the offence the article it contained could have caused’. And Sheikh Dr Shaheed Satardien, of Interfaith Roundtable, said the headline would ’cause offence to any Muslim’ who read it.

‘This is not a student prank or a joke. It is supposed to be a satirical magazine. on that basis the reference to Islam as a ‘towel- headed religion’ is fine, but the ‘stinking sand niggers’ part is blatant racism and disturbing. It’s just not acceptable.’ Satardien told the Sunday newspaper.

This is to miss the point.

Free speech is offensive. That’s how you know its free. There is no line you can draw, without accepting every other line that any individual or group seeks to draw. Either the offensive speech is allowed, or no speech is allowed at all. There is no such thing as ‘too offensive’, because someone out there will find anything too offensive. Father Ted is an insult to Catholics, or Irishmen, or Islanders. Podge and Rodge are a post-modern conspiracy designed to corrupt the morals of those students who aren’t already corrupt by Piranha! Harry Potter promotes Satanism. You name it, someone out there will get upset about it.

There is no ‘right to offend’, as some have claimed during the recent debate. Neither is there a ‘right to be offended’, or a ‘right not to be offended’, as others have claimed. What there should be is quite simple, a right to speak freely. If you disagree with an argument, then argue back, and have confidence in the power of your truth to conquer your opponents lies. If you are libelled, then sue for redress. But don’t demand that your opponent be gagged, if you expect any sympathy from me.

In fairness to them, the Americans got it right with their first amendment. ‘Congress shall pass no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech. [emphasis added].’ In the current context, where the faithful take offence at sleights to their beliefs, its worth bearing in mind that the same amendment also guarantees freedom of worship.

Our constitution choked on free speech, its fine words on ‘the rights of citizens to express freely their convictions and opinions’ immediately tempered by the qualification that the press ‘shall not be used to undermine public order or morality or the authority of the State.’ Not only that, but ‘the publication or utterance of blasphemous, seditious, or indecent matter is an offence which shall be punishable in accordance with law.’ In other words. ‘you can only speak freely until it upsets us’.

The European Convention on Human Rights choked on the same bone. Article 10 guarantees freedom of expression, then qualifies it with mealy mouthed words about ‘such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or the rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.’

To advocate free speech is not to advocate offensive speech. But all speech is offensive to somebody. I don’t particularly want to defend a bunch of spotty students from Trinity who think racism is good for a laugh, any more than I’d want to defend a holocaust denier or one of our home-grown religious bigots. But free speech must apply to all speech, or it applies to none.

Some things are absolute.