Liberté, libel and illusion

In the wake of the hideous murders at the Charlie Hebdo journal in Paris (which every decent person would unequivocally condemn), the world has seemed very binary: either you’re for total free speech or you’re not.

But here’s a fact which has got lost among the 1s and 0s of binary thinking: we don’t have free speech. Or rather, I’ll qualify that: we have qualified free speech.

In the UK, the Public Order Act 1986 makes any ‘visible representation… causing another person distress’ an offence. Incitement to racial or religious hatred can involve words or images and is an offence. And what about libel laws? You are not free to say absolutely anything about absolutely everybody. And while there’s no hint of physical threat attached, the No More Page 3 movement are clearly not in favour of unlimited free speech (for which, read unrestricted dissemination of images) where it allows the publication of photos of half-naked women in The Sun newspaper.

I don’t want to get into the relative merits of these offences and the campaign here now. But what has worried me since the Charlie Hebdo massacre is what feels like the unspoken implication that if you don’t come out unequivocally as pro-free speech – without caveats – you’re somehow some kind of apologist for the murderers’ actions.

But if ‘the right to offend’ is so crucial and apparently to be valued almost above all else, why have British newspapers avoided reprinting the offending cartoons? Could it be that they have concluded along the lines ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you have to’? (I don’t believe it’s simply because they fear reprisals.) And have they taken into account the fact that a predominantly white, privileged press, if it goes overboard, can seem quite threatening to a less privileged racial and religious minority?

We need a more nuanced, mature approach to freedom of speech post-Charlie Hebdo. And people need to be free to not feel pressured into saying ‘Je suis Charlie Hebdo’ while still fervently coming out against the barbaric acts of last week.

Surely those so passionately outspoken in favour of freedom of expression would allow for a peace-loving Muslim, say, to declare ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie Hebdo’?

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