Free speech means the freedom to offend


farenheit451A 'gang' (say the newspapers) of six British men have been arrested after a video of them burning copies of the Koran was posted on YouTube. Frankly, I'm revolted.

I'm revolted that people should publicly burn an artefact that millions of people revere, whether it is the Koran, the Bible, or even the American flag. These are actions which are intended to distress and outrage other people. Why do it?

I'm even more revolted that the laws in the United Kingdom allow people to be arrested for any such action.

Burning a flag or a religious or political book is an expression of an opinion, usually a deeply held opinion, that the item symbolises, or is the cause, of malign actions or beliefs. People should be able to express such opinions, even if it upsets and annoys others, without fear of being arrested and possibly imprisoned.

The United States has been served well for two centuries by a general presumption of free speech, encapsulated in an important amendment to the Constitution. It is felt there that free speech is vital if we are to have frank and open debate and a contest of ideas from which we can all learn and benefit. It is thought so important that it cannot be left to the judgement of officials or the police whether any particular statement is acceptable or not. We should have the same.

Many people in the UK think that the police are more inclined to prosecute attacks on the Islamic faith than on the Christian faith because Christians usually turn the other cheek while Muslims often get very angry indeed. They argue that Christians have even been prevented, by the police, from handing out Christian literature near a mosque; while it is unimaginable that Muslims would be stopped for handing out their texts near to a Christian cathedral.

The correct way to deal with these issues is simple. The right to free speech should apply equally to everyone. We might think that particular words or actions are gratuitously offensive – such as the disparaging nicknames given to racial groups – and as social beings we should argue with people to do that and try to get them to respect other people's sensibilities. But it shouldn't be against any law to offend people. It should certainly be against the law to threaten them or promote violence against them. And it should be against the law to use or threaten violence, even in response to some offensive remark or action. But there's a big difference between calling people offensive names and encouraging people to kill them.