Free Speech and the Right To Not Be Offended

The right to free speech has been invoked to defend all sorts of things, from promoting drugs for off-label uses to parodying trademarks. At the same time, people who make insulting or simply inaccurate statements sometimes expect that freedom of expression means that everyone must let those statements slide.

I’ve encountered this attitude many times. It goes something like this:

“You can’t tell me I shouldn’t say x because it’s offensive or untrue. I have my own truth and I’m allowed to say whatever I want.”

It’s a contradictory idea, of course: “I have freedom of speech, but you don’t have the freedom to say you disagree with me.” The whole point of free expression is to allow dissent. It was conceived as a legal protection to prohibit government crackdowns on citizens who protest or even just hold alternative views.

Not all speech is protected under these laws and the extent of them varies from country to country. For a number of reasons, religion seems to fall into a whole separate category – in many cases, the freedom to practice your religion has its own legislation.

Socially, too, criticizing someone’s religion raises more hackles than criticizing their political or lifestyle choices. A magazine can make fun of someone’s vegan diet or views on immigration, but that freedom seems to stop with religion.

Outside of a country’s laws, no one has the right to impose a religion on someone else. Some versions of secularism (the division of church and state) mean everyone can publicly practice their religion, while others lean more toward limiting religious expression to private occasions. Either way, it is illegal for the state to mandate individual religion in secular countries. This is what freedom of religion means.

In places with religious government, everyone has to respect and even appear to practice the national religion. To many, the most obvious examples are Iran and Saudi Arabia, but Myanmar also punishes citizens for even suggesting disrespect for Buddhism. Earlier this year, the country put three people in jail for an advertisement showing the Buddha wearing headphones.

According to the New York Times, the court convicted them because the advertisement “offended the majority religion in the country,” which violates the country’s religion act.

This incarceration shows that Buddhism is not just about a jolly fat guy who thinks everybody should live in peace. But more importantly, it reinforces a dangerous notion made apparent in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks: people who hold religious beliefs have the right to not be offended. Not only that, but if they are offended and they take revenge, it is at least partly the fault of those who committed the offence.

Of course, ethically, people probably shouldn’t offend other people just because they can. Ideally, all criticism should be constructive and based on facts. However, and here’s the key to all this, people are allowed to offend other people, no matter what their motivation – even if they just want to be annoying. Yes, it’s childish and irritating and unproductive. But that’s not the point. Freedom of speech only works if we protect speech that we disagree with.

No matter what we might think of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists’ crude drawings, we have to recognize their right to publish them. Religious belief does not exempt us from human rights law, let alone from being offended. If it did, we would have to say that it’s okay for Myanmar Buddhists to imprison people for depicting the Buddha in a comical way, while extremist Christians are right to blow up abortion clinics (which, by the way, is the biggest terrorism threat in the United States).

For good reasons, secular nations and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights have made many religiously sanctioned acts illegal, from honor killings (murder) to spousal disciplining (abuse).  Hate speech, or speech that incites people to violence, is also banned in many places, although its limits tend to be a bit fuzzy.

Photo: Ryan McGuire
Freedom of expression is not a one-way street (Photo: Ryan McGuire)

In the end, legislation is an attempt to stop people from harming other people. Freedom of expression protects us from fear of political retaliation, so that we can all contribute to a discussion on how to make the world a better place. Other laws forbid person-to-person violence, including as an act of revenge.

Free speech doesn’t justify structural, physical, or any other kind of violence.  And it certainly doesn’t protect us from getting our feelings hurt.


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