Free speech – get it here

The right to say what we want has come in for a battering this last week. The right to criticise, advise, expose. The right that goes to the core of a progressive, civilised society. The right that acts as a check on power and totalitarianism.

When the supporters of Charlie Hebdo read the magazine they queued up for today, they might not like all that they read. I would stand shoulder to shoulder with its brave journalists and cartoonists, but I expect I would be offended by some of their copy. After all, this is no cosy, friendly lifestyle publication. The whole point of the magazine is to stir up issues, provoke debate, and make people question and think. As with any satirical magazine, the way it does that can be acerbic and shocking. Offensive to many, that is true, and yet, it has to be allowed to publish what it wants. You don’t have to agree with it or even buy it, but it, and all its wonderfully contentious ideas, should be out there.

I applaud all the news agencies and television stations that showed the image of the front cover of Charlie Hebdo whilst reporting the news last night. There are many images that religions find offensive, there are many offensive people out there too. However, that does not logically lead to a decision to ban it or kill for it.

I don’t like much that comes from the mouths of the members of UKIP. Indeed I find a lot of it offensive, but I have no desire to ban them from speaking. Indeed it is when they do speak freely that it becomes patently clear to all who listen what a bag of nutters they really are. So, I hope the TV debate with both UKIP and the Greens goes ahead; let them be judged by what they say.

Images can harm, that is true. Violent or sexual images should never be seen by children; images that are psychologically disturbing or intended to incite violence or racism should be, and are, controlled. False words can harm careers, reputations, incite violence too, and our laws and legal precedents cover that. But an image offensive to a religion will not shake the beliefs of the faithful. Yes, they might insult, but they don’t cause lasting damage and therein lies the difference.

That any of this should lead to violence is, of course, abhorrent. Anyone who kills to frighten is a terrorist and deserves to rot. Their legacy is fear, but only if we succumb to it. By publishing the images the terrorists wanted to obliterate we emasculate their cause.

The right to speak and publish should never be fettered by fear. Religious faith can’t be undermined by a cartoon. The rights not to listen, to walk away and to ignore are equally important. Challenge the ideas behind it, by all means, but we must never limit the right to speak freely.


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