Free Speech – Where’s The Line Between Freedom And Censorship?

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Being in the comedy business (okay so I’m on the fringe of it, and it’s not my full time job. If it was, I’d starve to death), I’ve learned to be more thick-skinned. I didn’t have a choice. People would say things and some of them offended me a little, but most comedy is an attack on something, and it’s going to hit somebody hard, even if it isn’t you (don’t worry though, next time it might be).

There’s a famous quote by Evelyn Beatrice Hall that’s often wrongly attributed to French philosopher Voltaire. “I disapprove of what you say but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” It really emphasizes the right we have to speak out as we wish. The question raised is whether we can really say anything we want and should we be able to?

Hate speech and speech that insights violence is illegal in many countries, but making it illegal infringes on free speech, doesn’t it? Perhaps the laws that supposedly allow free speech should read ‘you have a right to free speech, most of the time.’

I can understand making speech that incites violence illegal. This sort of speech could lead to actual violence and assaults, perhaps killings, and those things are illegal, so making the speech that tries to kick start and promote these acts illegal sounds fair enough.

What about hate speech? That’s a more difficult one. In the USA it is protected by the First Amendment, but in other countries, such as the UK, it is illegal in most cases. In other words, hateful speech aimed at people just because of who they are is against the law. This would include such acts as racism, homophobia and xenophobia. All of these are forbidden. You are not allowed to say anything hateful to somebody because of their race, sexuality, nationality, religion etc. Is this law against free speech?

Answer – it is. The two can’t co-exist. Either a country like the UK has to admit that there is no real free speech, or it has to allow people to be able to speak their opinion, even if it is negative about a person’s sexuality, religion, etc.

It might be generalization by some, and that’s always dangerous, but many people have very negative feelings towards Islam these days with all that’s going on currently and what has gone on in the past. Despite this, you wouldn’t be able to come across a Muslim in the UK who says he supports ISIS or doesn’t think 9/11 was a bad thing, and say you didn’t like them because they were a Muslim.

It looks like total and complete free speech is something that we can’t have. You can’t say things about people that are slanderous. If you make up a lie about a well known rich businessman, then you might find yourself being sued. Yes it’s a lie, it’s wrong, but surely you can say what you want under free speech, right?

Wrong.

What about the freedoms to offend? There are no real laws that state you are not allowed to offend people (e.g. ‘you fat bastard!’) and many artists decide to abuse them. Sometimes a stand up comedian can say something that’s offensive, but it being offensive is what makes it funny. In other cases, someone will make something they call art, and it will be done purely to provoke. Pieces of work such as Piss Christ (where a crucifix is submerged in the artist’s urine) or La Nona Ora (The ninth hour, depicting Pope John Paul II struck down by a meteor) seem to only be done to stir up controversy, and controversy always gets attention (something the artists want).

A couple of years ago, Swedish artist Carl Michael Von Hausswolff exhibited a painting in a gallery in Lund, made up by the ashes of Holocaust victims. In doing so, he knew he’d cause outrage, and get attention. Is it right for an artist to create a provocative piece of work, just to get it some attention? Then you have comics who to like to poke fun at the way people look or talk or even mock cultures and disabilities, but they get away with it, if it’s funny.

The trouble is, for each of these outrageous pieces, the artist will try to give an explanation as to why they did it, insisting that they weren’t trying to offend or get attention.

Andres Serrano, who created Piss Christ, explains that sticking a crucifix in to a glass container full of his own urine alluded to a perceived commercializing or cheapening of Christian icons in contemporary culture.

Of course people who it doesn’t offend defend it, until something is created that offends them. I may laugh at some jokes about Jews, until they start attacking Jesus. You may think mocking Christianity is funny until someone makes fun of Chinese people (and you happen to be Chinese).

So where do we go from here? Do we accept that free speech is a right we have and sometimes it’s going to offend us, or is there a need to realize that perhaps there is too much freedom in the world, and when people have nothing to do, they like to offend and provoke others. Perhaps an excess of freedom is unhealthy for society, much like too much of anything is never a good idea?

I suppose there are three questions to be answered here. Do we have true free speech? It seems like the answer is no. Is it possible to have true free speech and do we really need it if having it will cause such disharmony in the world? TC mark

featured image – Mustafa and Aziza

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