Freedom of speech is a fundamental liberty but not all speech acts contribute to either the development of an individual or society. A distinction should be drawn between the speech that is necessary for democratic politics, and speech that undermines public deliberation. This essay will assess if freedom of expression includes the right to offend or should be limited to sustain a functioning plural liberal democracy. Firstly, it will examine John Stuart Mill's arguments supporting freedom of speech that fosters debate and encourages progress. Secondly, the paper will explore what is offensive speech and its consequences on the communities. Thirdly, it will analyze some of the events that sparked outrage amongst Muslims, and in their belief, undermined their right to equal respect as citizens. Lastly, it will discuss if there should be specific laws to guard minority groups from defamation and set societal norms.
John Stuart Mill (1859) argues that even if a person finds himself alone expressing an opinion, 'mankind would no more be justified in silencing that one person, than he if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind'. If the opinion is true, then by suppressing it humanity is deprived of the truth and will not progress. If it is false, then we again lose, because a false opinion would be proved to be incorrect, but its expression is useful and forces us to restate the reasons for our beliefs. Claims would often be partially true and may require a third argument to resolve the conflict between them. People who seek to suppress an opinion assume their own beliefs are infallible; the freedom of expression allows us to advance the truth through the competition of ideas. Mill argues that progress in knowledge and understanding comes about not only through experience but also through discussion.
Mill distinguishes between freedom of expression and freedom of action, even though there is a close causal relationship between the two. An opinion that 'corn dealers are starvers of the poor,' expressed to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, would be a form of offensive speech with the aim to incite violence. 'Hate speech' singles out an individual or a group based on certain characteristics and aims to intentionally provoke hatred against them. However, Smits (2009) suggests that 'hate speech is almost always offensive to its targets; however, not all offensive speech is designed to incite hate.' Critics of the ban on hate speech argue that it is paternalistic and gives the state excessive power imperiling individuals' liberty. They claim that free speech is a necessary condition of free thought, when it is restricted, the human capacity to think is undermined. Nevertheless, Parekh (2006) argues that offensive speech promotes hostility toward a group distinguished by a particular feature and delegitimizes their membership in the political community by subjecting them to harassment and intimidation, which can damage their sense of dignity and equal life chances.
Muslims were outraged by The Satanic Verses, written by Rushdie in 1988, and felt that it was unfair that the Blasphemy laws only applied to Christianity, suggesting that other religions are not worthy of respect. Then, the Danish cartoon controversy happened in 2005, where the Danish newspaper The Jutland Post printed 12 images of the Prophet Mohammad in a variety of settings. Some of them were complimentary, while others challenged the view that Islam is a religion of peace. There were widespread demonstrations across the world targeting Danish embassies and boycotting Danish goods. The Public Prosecutor in Denmark held that the anti-Muslim cartoon did not constitute an offense. Media insisted on their freedom of expression and right to publish such images, mentioning that Christianity was subject to satire without restriction. Western leaders condemned the violence and maintained the right to freedom of expression, but as the violence escalated, they did accept that the images were offensive. Public opinion tended to be critical of Muslim protests within liberal democracies, arguing they had failed to understand and accept Western norms and values, which increased divisions between communities.
The International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) (1960) states that ideas based on racial superiority or hatred that incite racial discrimination or violence against any race or group of people or assist racist activities should be punishable by law. In 2017, the European Union member states agreed to make incitement to hatred or violence against someone, based on religion, race, or ethnicity, a criminal offense. Even though freedom of speech is essential to the development of democracy, the European Court ruled that some restrictions may be necessary; for example, nine European countries have made holocaust denial a criminal offense. Although the law has its limitations, it can prevent conflicts and prejudices in the multi-ethnic society from getting out of control and discourage hate speech by laying down norms of decency and affirming the community's commitment to certain basic values.
Unlimited freedom of speech may be a political right, but it should be exercised keeping in mind the moral values of the community, rather than solely focusing on the rights of the individual. Other values, such as equality, social harmony, human dignity and freedom to live without harassment and intimidation need to be safeguarded as well. Hate speech has a limited social value and does not promote public political discourse but rather alienates certain groups from society. The controversies surrounding The Satanic Verses and the Danish Cartoons illustrate the frustrations of minority groups; Muslims believe that no one should be allowed to insult their religion or the Prophet Muhammad, while Western democracies believe in unrestricted freedom of expression. However, there should be a distinction drawn between speech directed at ideas and speech directed at people; therefore, the law should protect minorities against offensive speech that incites hatred or violence.