What are the limits to freedom of speech?

Two interesting and important statements about freedom of speech in seminars at the University of East London this week.  One I agree with, another I do not.

Actions not expressions

First: laws should only deal with actions and not expressions.  The law should punish what people do not what they say.  Even if the expression is a call to action.

A right to be offended?

Second: people have a right to be offended by what others say and stop them saying it.  Direct statements to people which they find offensive should be stopped.

Curtailing freedom of speech is a punishment

Both of these rule out each other.  If only actions should be punished then people should be able to say what they want, without fear of punishment.  And curtailing freedom of speech is punishment.

If people can stop offensive statements, then the focus is not on actions but on the expression.

Majority favours right to be offended

We are, in this country, by law favouring the second statement.  Just as my students, mostly in their 20s, favoured it by a majority.

Remarks are offensive and may lead to action so they should be banned, the law says.  The Racial and Religious Hatred Act of 2006 is clear on this:

1 Hatred against persons on religious grounds

The Public Order Act 1986 (c. 64) is amended in accordance with the Schedule

to this Act, which creates offences involving stirring up hatred against persons

on religious grounds.

The schedule is longer than the Act itself.  Which tells us a lot: it is easier to state the principle and harder to define the detail.  The schedule explains the details under which people can be prosecuted.

Expressing, publishing, distributing, even posessing is an offence

These details include not only making the statement but also publishing it, distributing it and possessing it.  The only place where such statements can be made, legally, is in a domestic setting and not heard or seen by others.

A tradition of freedom of speech?

And there are other laws like this which curtail freedom of speech.  Yet ask most people and they will say we have a tradition of freedom of speech in this country.

I am in favour of the first statement: focus on actions not on expressions.


There is a contradiction in the second statement about offensive expressions.  It has been highlighted by the debate about the term “Yid” applied to Tottenham Hotspur football team.  If a group of Spurs fans call themselves “Yids” is this OK?  After all, they are not able to offend themselves.  But if a rival team’s fans call them “Yids” is it offensive?  Do we have to check the racial origins of people to find if it is offensive or not?

Persuade students

How can I persuade my students that it is only actions which should be punished?

Perhaps I should re-read Robert Hargreaves’ excellent book The First Freedom: A History of Free Speech.

Big problem: Journalism ethics

But I have a bigger problem: I have to give a lecture in October on journalism ethics.  It may be a short one.

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