TOPIC GUIDE: DM Berlin: Offence

"Nobody has the right to not be offended"

PUBLISHED: 01 Sep 2015

AUTHOR: Justine Brian

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In January 2015 two gunmen shot and killed 12 staff members of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for reasons understood to be related to offence caused by their portrayal of Islamic religious figures. Although the general reaction to the events in Paris was the need to maintain free speech in the wake of terrorist attacks, a debate began about how we balance a commitment to free speech with sensitivity to causing offence or discord, and indeed whether free speech could or should be an absolute principle. Speaking after the Paris attacks, Chancellor Angela Merkel defended the need for free speech stating that: “This is an attack against the values we all hold dear, values by which we stand, values of freedom of the press, freedom in general and the dignity of man.” [Ref: Telegraph]. Others argue that offensive speech, which some might call ‘hate speech’, contributes to a climate where discrimination and violence are more likely, suggesting that: “… hatred is the gateway to discrimination, harassment and violence. It is the psychological foundation for serious, harmful criminal acts. …” [Ref: Guardian]. So is there an inherent, unresolvable conflict between free speech and offence? Can we make the case for absolute free speech without limits where: “People have the right to say what they wish, short of inciting violence, however offensive others may find it…” [Ref: Pandemonium] or does: “…our society makes a fetish of “the right to free speech” without ever questioning what sort of responsibilities are implied by this right” [Ref: Vice]? Is there a balance to be struck between the two, or can we only truly have free speech when we also accept that nobody has the right not to offended?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

What are the arguments for freedom of speech and are they still relevant today?
The Enlightenment thinker Voltaire is associated with the statement ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’ [Ref: The Basics of Philosophy]. The philosopher J S Mill defended freedom of speech on the basis that it is only by allowing beliefs to be criticised that we can be justified in believing that they are true. Some argue that in today’s pluralistic societies and in an effort to be respectful to a diverse range of cultures and beliefs, we must accept the need for limits on what can be said in public discourse to protect the dignity of others, to avoid creating social antagonisms and to: “…recognise the power and impact of our words” [Ref: The Conversation]. Throughout Europe in recent years there have been calls for restrictions, bans or legal action to be taken on a wide range of things which cause offence to some, including: the outlawing of the singing of sectarian songs at football matches in Scotland [Ref: BBC News]; the banning in France of sales of a DVD by French comedian Dieudonné for alleged anti-Semitism and holocaust denial [Ref: RFI]; moves in the Polish parliament to extend existing ‘hate law’ legislation to protect gay and transgender people [Ref: Radio Poland]; Spanish prosecutors called for action against hate speech by Spanish citizens on Twitter, including those accused of ‘glorifying terrorism’ [Ref: El Pais];  and in Germany, where freedom of expression is guaranteed under Article 5 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany [Ref: Bundestag], holocaust denial is banned and prosecuted under the Volksverhetzung , Germany’s criminal code, which outlaws incitement to hatred against segments of the population.

Do we have a right not to be offended?
Certain things, e.g. speech, images and writings, are criminalised, it is stated, in order to protect people from physical and psychological harm, and the laws have been introduced in many countries to deal with ‘hate speech’ [Ref: Wikipedia]. This is about more than merely not offending people, it’s argued, but a social good as ‘harms to dignity’: “…involve more than the giving of offense. They involve undermining a public good…the “implicit assurance” extended to every citizen that while his beliefs and allegiance may be criticized and rejected by some of his fellow citizens, he will nevertheless be viewed, even by his polemical opponents, as someone who has an equal right to membership in the society” [Ref: New York Times]. But opponents of increasing restrictions on free speech, in the name of preventing offence, argue that: “…it is precisely because we do live in a plural society that we need the fullest extension possible of free speech…it is both inevitable and important that people offend the sensibilities of others. Inevitable, because where different beliefs are deeply held, clashes are unavoidable. In relation to German and European holocaust denial laws, writer Timothy Garton Ash argues that although these laws may be well intentioned, like other hate speech laws, to “…make a significant difference to combating racism, anti-semitism and xenophobia today” what such legalisation actually does is to “curtail free expression - at a time when that is under threat from many quarters. Free expression is a unique and primary good in free societies; it’s the oxygen that sustains other freedoms [Ref: Guardian].  Some suggest that if one accepts some limits to free speech on the grounds of offence, it will lead to competing demands by other groups not be offended, leading to a loss of freedom for all. The very point of freedom of speech, they argue, is to protect ‘extreme’ speech as, by definition, ‘acceptable’ or ‘mainstream’ speech needs no such protection and as such: “You do not have the right not to be offended. Feeling offended is the price one pays for living in a free, open, tolerant, often rowdy society” [Ref: spiked].

With rights come responsibilities?
Critics of the idea of absolute freedom of speech argue that speech is never really ‘free’ but has consequences and, like all rights, needs to be exercised with responsibility and thought to those around us, and that: “We have a civic duty not to offend others” [Ref: Huffington Post]. Speech, it is argued, is not only used to make rational arguments, but can be used to foment hatred and stigmatise minorities, reflecting existing social inequalities. Because of this: “Practical freedom of speech…is not a black-and-white issue, not just a matter of misquoting Voltaire; it is a subtly calibrated scale. It involves questions about social context, and discretion” [Ref: Independent]. But those who reject the right not to be offended ask: “Why isn’t offence ever a legitimate reason to restrict speech? Because unlike mental harm, offence occurs as a consequence of people projecting their own values and attitudes onto the lives of others. There is nothing to stop us from doing this, but it would be illiberal for the law to intervene …after all, the laws first and foremost purpose is to prevent us from harmfully interfering with one another’s liberty” [Ref: Free Speech Debate]. Moreover, a defence of free speech some argue, rightly assumes people are rational and fully capable of assessing different arguments, and making their own minds up, and therefore, the banning of ‘offensive’ things is: “…a refusal to engage with the realities of a diverse society” [Ref: Guardian]. Speaking after the attack in Paris, author Salman Rushdie, who had found himself under threat after his controversial book ‘The Satanic Verses’ was condemned by an Islamic cleric in 1989 [Ref: Wikipedia], says that: “Freedom is indivisible…You can’t slice it up otherwise it ceases to be freedom. You can dislike Charlie Hedbo … But the fact that you dislike them has nothing to do with their right to speak.” [Ref: Guardian].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


We must stop bowing to the censorious army of offence takers

Brendan O'Neill spiked 10 September 2014

On the importance of the right to offend

Kenan Malik Pandemonium 29 January 2014

Defending the right to be offended

Index on Censorship 23 December 2013

The right not to be offended: The Supreme Court and religion

John W Whitehead Huffington Post 25 May 2011


Freedom of speech: is it my right to offend you?

Archie Bland Independent 2 February 2014

The harm in free speech

Stanley Fish New York Times 4 June 2012


Prevent harm, allow offence?

Robert Simpson Free Speech Debate 8 January 2013


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Angela Merkel Can Prevent Another Charlie Hebdo

Mike Ghouse Huffington Post 15 January 2015

Sometimes there is a moral duty to mock religion

Ed West Catholic Herald 8 January 2015

When free speech becomes a kind of fundamentalism

Charles Watson The Conversation 8 January 2015

Limits of Liberalism

John Rees Counterfire 8 January 2015

No offence: the new threats to free speech

John O'Sullivan Wall Street Journal 31 October 2014

Europe’s rules on freedom of information and hate speech

Mike Harris Index on Censorship 6 January 2014

Freedom of speech must never mean freedom to abuse

Dominique Jackson Daily Mail 12 June 2012

Hate speech Vs free speech

Peter Tatchell Guardian 10 October 2007

A blanket ban on Holocaust denial would be a serious mistake

Timothy Garton Ash Guardian 18 January 2007


The basics of philosophy


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Relevant recent news stories from a variety of sources, which ensure students have an up to date awareness of the state of the debate.

LGBT hate speech to be outlawed

Radio Poland 28 July 2015

Man jailed over anti-Semitic tweet to MP

Guardian 20 October 2014

Frankie Boyle defends paralympic joke

BBC News 31 August 2012

Jail for German Holocaust denier

BBC News 15 February 2007


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