tagReviews & EssaysFree Speech is Offensive

Free Speech is Offensive


Copyright Oggbashan May 2005

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.


The unrestricted use of Free Speech is bound to offend someone. The right to say or write something controversial is precious.

What I say may give offence. What other people say may offend me. Free Speech is a reciprocal right. If I want it, I must also allow other people to have it too.

The ultimate test of Free Speech is the ability to criticise a government, a religion, or any organisation in authority. Can you say what you think about those who rule you or control your life? If you can't then you do not have free speech.

The authorities have to have confidence in their legitimacy if they can allow free speech. If they are ruling by force, coercion or financial control then they cannot afford to have people claiming that the emperor has no clothes.

Free Speech and the Establishment.

It is difficult for any established power to totally suppress any form of criticism as used to happen in soviet states that banned typewriters, duplicating machines and restricted the sale of paper. The internet has spread so far that almost anyone with access to a phone line can criticise the establishment anonymously even though there are still risks for the individuals. The difference in those countries that have free speech is stil significant. US citizens can publish jokes about their President or any politician without fear of an official knock on the door in the middle of the night. They might fear illegal reprisals from incensed supporters of the President or the attacked politician but not state-sponsored violence.

Free Speech and Belief.

Attacking a religious belief is an expression of free speech that can be very controversial and counter-productive. Belief is not necessarily rational so arguments against it are not likely be perceived as normal debate. The response to criticism may well be extreme. Criticising the religion from within may be valid such as stating that the way the organisation is run is not in accordance with its stated beliefs. However the extreme response may be that the critic is ignominiously ejected from the community. Criticising someone's belief will be considered as very offensive and few people are secure enough in the belief to dismiss critics lightly.

Free Speech and Politics.

Political debate has its own rules and free speech is essential if the true issues in a campaign are to be aired. Unfortunately for democracies the message is no longer 'We will do this' but 'We will tell you what you want to hear'. A free press unfettered by imposed restrictions by law or the politics of its owners can perform a valuable service by separating the rhetoric from the reality. However most of the media is not as free as it pretends to be, leaving the duty of exposing politics to those few independent voices crying in the wilderness and hoping to avoid lawsuits.

Free Speech and Morality.

Whose morality governs free speech? What I might think is moral would be anathema to another. Should my morality prevail? Should the majority's morality succeed in banning any other version? There are some givens e.g. that abuse of children and the vulnerable is immoral. Beyond that: who sets the limits? What is very offensive to one group may be common practice in another. The morality of different cultures can cause real distress. If there is free discussion of what is or is not acceptable then the unmentionable must be aired and not suppressed. This is only possible if all cultures recognise the usefulness of free speech and not all are prepared to do that if what is proposed is contrary to their beliefs.

Free Speech and Courtesy.

If the exercise of free speech is going to offend then how can a courteous person fully use free speech? The real answer is to say what you intend to say as an attack against institutions, organisations, authorities and not against individuals or an individual's belief.

If I believe that my government is misguided then I should say so. If I believe that a politician's policy is wrong then I should make clear my concern. If I am to be courteous I should distinguish between the person and the policy. A politician has been defined as someone who can believe two mutually contradictory things at once. If I can, by the use of free speech convince a politician that the policy is contradictory then I might be able to change something. If I have been attacking the politician personally then my chance of exerting influence is minimal.

Free Speech is offensive.

Saying what you mean without restraint is going to offend someone. The right of free speech also has a reciprocal duty: to allow others the freedom that you yourself claim even if the other person's free speech attacks everything you hold dear. If I can offend then I too must accept that others can offend me. I must defend their right even when they I attack everything I believe in. If no one is offended, then the speech isn't fully free.

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