As a Western democracy, we boast about Free Speech, insisting that it is a fundamental building block of civilisation. Millions have gathered around the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’ in order to express their outrage at the murderous action of the two brothers who so emphatically stopped certain people mocking the man they revere the most, the prophet Mohammad. It feels somewhat odd, therefore, that a couple of days later, against the backdrop of this proud boast, the Prime Minister was announcing a bill, due to be debated this week, legally prohibiting universities from allowing “extremist Muslims” from freely expressing their opinions on campuses. The Universities are crying ‘foul’- such opinions surely have to have the space to be expressed so they can be challenged in the open, and a university is precisely the place for such encounters to occur. But this is an extreme example and in general, we allow Free Speech... or do we?
As a Christian, I wince and generally switch off when smug comedians entertain audiences by creating crass caricatures of Christians so they can shoot them down in exchange for cheap laughs, but in the interest of Free Speech, I defend their right to be so crass. In truth though, we fall well short of allowing Free Speech. Benedict Cumberbatch has just had to apologise for referring to black actors as ‘coloured’, and Dave Whelan, the owner of Wigan Athletic, has received a six game ban and a £50,000 fine for saying he sees no problem in referring to Chinese people as ‘Chinks’, a term considered ‘highly offensive’ by the British Chinese Project. Last Wednesday, Ross Loraine, a nineteen year old from Sunderland, accepted a police caution and so now has a criminal record because of a offensive ‘joke’ he tweeted in the wake of the Glasgow bin lorry crash that killed six people.
In short, you can be as offensive as you like to religions and religious leaders, but woe betide you if you pick on the wrong target for your poison. As with all freedoms, Free Speech is open to abuse and only works in a society built on the principle of respect. We quite rightly distinguish between those who express their contempt with words and those who express it with machine guns, but we do well to bear in mind the words of Jesus’ brother, James, when he wrote:
“The tongue is just a small member of the body but it boasts great things. See how a small fire it takes to set a whole forest ablaze! And the tongue is a fire.”
This is a short extract from James Ch. 3 and in the light of the above, why don’t you read the rest of the chapter and consider its implications for Free Speech, and what it says about the values of our nation’s secular liberal elite. As for me, whilst I uphold the principle of Free Speech, I in no way wish to be associated with Charlie Hebdo and the verbal and visual vitriol it uses to offend anyone who its employees dislike... “Je ne suis pas Charlie”.