What “Freedom of Speech” Means to Me

Those of you who know me know that I’m not reactionary by nature. I may have a fiery temper, but I’ve learned to keep it pretty much in check. Lots of things about the world we live in annoy the proverbial f*ck out of me, but I generally let it boil just under the surface and then mouth off about it to anyone who will listen.

This is the reason that this piece comes almost two weeks after the Terror Attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris which so shocked the Western World. This piece is, I hope, a measured response. A Personal response. My response.

And it’s not about religion—although it so easily could be. Believe me, I have no beef with most “religious people”, if their faith sustains them through daily life then all power to them. But I do have a serious problem with “Organised Religion”, which to me is a completely different thing. As I said to my son shortly after the attacks, Organised Religion is nothing more than an instrument of Control.

But that’s a post for a different day.

Today, I want to talk about the thing that we the West perceived the Charlie Hebdo shootings as being an attack upon—our Freedom of Speech.

I suppose that Freedom of Speech (or Freedom of Expression) is most associated in most people’s minds with the United States. It’s not that they came up with the concept, but they do tend to shout the loudest about it. It’s the First Amendment of US Constitution after all. Although, it’s worth pointing out that the most notable absence from the great “Freedom of Speech March” in Paris was one Barrack Obama.

Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights says that,

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers

Here in the UK we have a “Negative Right” to freedom of Expression under Common Law—that is, the right not to have our expression curtailed by the Government. This right was incorporated in the 1998 Human Rights Act under article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.


In the UK, Freedom of Expression is not absolute. There are exceptions for threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour. Exceptions for harassment or the cause of alarm, distress or a breach of the peace. Indecent or grossly offensive material which it likely to cause distress or anxiety is banned. And there are strict laws on incitement, be it incitement to racial or religious hatred or incitement to terrorism.

So, those who say “I have the right to say what I want, when I want” actually mean, “I have the right to say what I want when I want as long as [insert all the exceptions above here]”

Which to be honest is absolutely fine with me. I don’t particularly want to do any of those things. I don’t want to threaten, abuse or insult. I don’t want to harass or cause alarm, distress or anxiety. And I certainly don’t want to incite anyone to do anything.

But I do want to express myself. That’s why I write. And I know full well that some of the things I write are going to upset people for whatever reason. It may cause offence.

But here’s where things get tricky. I want to be able to write what I want to write, subject to the exceptions in law stated above, but the reader who’s going to be offended by it wants the right to not be offended.

And those two “rights” are incompatible.

But here’s the kicker. The “right” to not be offended, isn’t in fact a right at all.

What you’re actually saying when you’re offended is that whatever you read/saw/heard hurt your feelings. And because, by their nature, feelings are subjective, they change from person to person, it is impossible to account for them in a legal system that is objective in nature.

The second you start taking account of people’s feelings the law become subjective. How is one person, say a member of a jury, supposed to know how another person¸ say an alleged victim, felt on the day of the alleged crime—or any other day for that matter. And if they can’t know for certain how someone felt how can they account for it when passing judgement on someone who’s liberty is at stake. You can’t. And nor should you. The law deals in FACTS, not feelings.

This is where the saying “offence is taken, not given” comes from. I could say, what is to me, the most innocuous thing imaginable and say it with no intent to cause harm or offence to anyone. But someone, somewhere might be upset or offended by it. So does that mean I shouldn’t say it?

Of course not. That would be ludicrous. It would mean nobody ever said anything for fear of causing offence. Nothing would ever be written. There would be no art. No culture of any kind.

So after a rather rambling piece, here’s my message to those who find anything that I write upsetting or offensive.


Don’t read it, because that is your right. No-one forces you to read/listen to/watch anything. You choose to. And you can also choose not to.

It’s quite simple. Point your browser at another website. Load another book into your Kindle. Unfriend me on Facebook. Unfollow me on twitter.

Your sense of being offended is your problem, not mine. So you deal with it.

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