filled with men and women from every country, faith and background. There may not be more human diversity on the planet altogether – indeed there is probably less, as languages die and lifestyles converge – but there is a new intimacy of diversity. Let's exaggerate to make the point: we are all neighbours now." />

Free Speech Debate

Thirteen languages. Ten principles. One conversation.

Log in | Register | Mailing list

1We – all human beings – must be free and able to express ourselves, and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas, regardless of frontiers.»
2We defend the internet and all other forms of communication against illegitimate encroachments by both public and private powers.»
3We require and create open, diverse media so we can make well-informed decisions and participate fully in political life.»
4We speak openly and with civility about all kinds of human difference.»
5We allow no taboos in the discussion and dissemination of knowledge.»
6We neither make threats of violence nor accept violent intimidation.»
7We respect the believer but not necessarily the content of the belief.»
8We are all entitled to a private life but should accept such scrutiny as is in the public interest.»
9We should be able to counter slurs on our reputations without stifling legitimate debate.»
10We must be free to challenge all limits to freedom of expression and information justified on such grounds as national security, public order, morality and the protection of intellectual property.»

What’s missing?

Is there a vital area we have not addressed? A principle 11? An illuminating case study? Read other people's suggestions and add your own here. Or start the debate in your own language.

Timothy Garton Ash | An explanation

Living with difference

Most of us encounter more diverse people than our ancestors did. We encounter them virtually, through the internet and mobile devices, but also physically. As a result of air travel and mass migration, big cities like London, Hong Kong, Dubai and Toronto are filled with men and women from every country, faith and background. There may not be more human diversity on the planet altogether – indeed there is probably less, as languages die and lifestyles converge – but there is a new intimacy of diversity. Let's exaggerate to make the point: we are all neighbours now.

Conflict and civility

Living with difference is difficult. Our deeply cherished beliefs, values and ways of life do not merely contrast; they conflict. We should not be afraid of that. Conflict is an ineradicable part of freedom and a source of creativity. If there were no differences, we would have no choices and therefore no freedom. What we need is not to abolish conflict but to ensure that it happens in a civilised way. That is the spirit of this draft principle – which is for debate, like all the other draft principles. We must be free to speak openly about all kinds of human difference, but without the words turning to blows. Hence the need for what we have called “civility”. Like the translators on Wikipedia, where “civility” is a key term, our student translators have wrestled to find equivalents in their languages. In English, I like these elements of a definition from the Oxford English Dictionary: “Behaviour or speech appropriate to civil interactions” and “The minimum degree of courtesy required in a social situation.”

“Hate speech” and “immutable characteristics”

Much of the free speech literature is concerned with what we should or should not be free by law to say about how other women and men differ from us. One shorthand label used in English is “hate speech”. This has been helpfully defined as speech that attacks or disparages a group or a person for characteristics purportedly typical of the group. Article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights calls for, “Any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence” to be outlawed. Whole volumes are devoted to exploring exactly what that means, and how one should balance or reconcile the demands of Article 19 and Article 20 of the Covenant. Countries differ greatly in what they allow and the line does not fall simply between authoritarian and liberal democratic states. There are big differences even between the oldest democracies of the west. Most countries in Europe and the English-speaking world (Australia, Canada etc) limit by law what we are allowed to say about others more than the US does.

The subject of this principle is closely related to questions addressed in the next three: the freedom to debate history, science and other areas of knowledge (see P5), incitement to violence (see P6) and – explosively in our time – religion (see P7). But it applies most directly to statements or images attacking or negatively generalising about other human beings on account of who they are, rather than what they believe or think; just because they have a darker skin, for example, or are women, or were born into a certain family or tribe. In the US, they call these “immutable characteristics”, but when you look at it more closely, some are more immutable than others. A contrast is often drawn between religion, which you can change, and race, which you cannot. Just how clear is that distinction? True, you cannot change your skin colour, but as Paul Gilroy and others have argued, “race” is a social construct. For decades, the same person who was (like it or not) always described as “black” in the US could be “white” in Brazil. So is it really the case that “race” belongs unambiguously on the immutable list, and “religion” among the mutable? What do you think are “immutable characteristics”?

By law or social practice?

This fourth principle, like the others, suggests that as little as possible should be restricted by law, as much as possible regulated by our own free choices as grown-up neighbours, citizens and netizens. Trying to impose civility by law has so many disadvantages. In the nature of something as complex as human identities in today’s mixed-up world, it is very difficult to define exactly what should and should not be banned. From country to country, the legislation is full of unclear wordings such as “stirring up” (Britain), “threatening speech” (Denmark) or “provocation” (Spain). Defenders of such legislation often say, “But it is used only in the most extreme cases.” The record suggests that it has been used only in a few of the most extreme cases, and in several that were not so extreme (read our case study here). At best, its use has been selective, at worst, almost random. Because people don’t know where the line is, this legal uncertainty has a chilling effect. Once you start down this road, you are repeatedly confronted with the charge of double standards. If race is covered, why not religion? If religion, why not sexuality? If Jews and Christians, why not Muslims? If Muslims, why not lesbians? If lesbians, why not old people? If the state attempts to satisfy these objections, there is a ratchet effect – putting ever more subjects and groups off limits. That ratchet effect is a response to a liberal striving for equality before the law, but also to the lobbying power of particular groups.

If you follow this logic, then the more diverse your society is, the more taboos there will be. Ultimately, you reach the comprehensive position expressed in Section 153A of the Indian penal code, which threatens with up to three years in prison anyone who, “By words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise, promotes or attempts to promote, on grounds of religion, race, place or birth, residence, language, caste or community or any other ground whatsoever, disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities…” (my italics). On the face of it, that looks like the ultimate modern multiculturalist recipe. In fact, it goes back to the days of the British empire and a penal code written by the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. Its logic was one of colonial oppression: keep the lid on those restless natives, by having the power to lock up anybody for saying anything offensive to anyone else. By stopping people from publicly expressing these thoughts and emotions, you don’t stop them thinking and feeling them. Those thoughts and feelings are merely driven underground, where they fester – eventually re-emerging in more poisonous forms.

Taking offence

Such legislation also has the perverse effect of encouraging people to take offence. Do we want to be the sort of human beings who are constantly taking offence? (“It is the mark of a weak position, not a strong one,” observes the South African writer JM Coetzee, “that its holder, when challenged, takes offence.”) Do we want to educate our children to see themselves as victims? Even if you think law should be used in a symbolic, expressive way, to “send a message”, is this the right message for it to send? Or do we want our children rather to grow up understanding that the human being demeaned by an unfounded insult, be it racist, sexist, nationalist or ageist, is the person delivering the insult, not the person at whom the insult is directed. There is an old English saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” As a descriptive statement, that is clearly wrong. Words can hurt deeply. Take it not as a description but as a prescription and you discover a different meaning: I want to be the kind of person who cannot be hurt by offensive, insulting language. In a world where we are daily confronted with the intimacy of difference, we all need to grow thicker skins. Yet clearly that is easier said if you are a rich and powerful man belonging to a dominant majority than if you are an impoverished woman belonging to an ostracised minority. Our voluntary code cannot be confined to saying, “We must all get thicker skins.” It must take account of the difference between the weak and the strong.

Towards robust civility

For expression to remain free, we must have the right to offend; that does not mean we have a duty to offend. We need to find ways of speaking frankly about difference without insulting the basic human dignity of those we are talking to or about. There are many paths to robust civility, and they vary greatly with context (which is another reason one-size-fits-all hate speech law is so bad at regulating this most complex form of human interaction). Much humour, for example, consists precisely in transgressing the usual lines of civility. Half the jokes in the world are, taken at face value, outrageous ethnic or sexual slurs. To give a very mild example, Omid Djalili says, “I’m the only Iranian comedian in the world – and that’s three more than Germany.” Sometimes, the difference between a Jewish joke and an anti-Semitic joke is who is telling it. Without thinking about it, we all adjust our civility settings many times a day. There are things you say freely to a close friend in the bar that you would never say at grandma’s dinner table. Committees, schools, clubs, factories, universities, offices all have their own formal or informal codes. These are often more restrictive, or at least, more insistent on formal courtesy, than those we use elsewhere. Most publications and websites have their editorial and community standards.

Free speech as navigation

The philosopher Michel Foucault tells us that the Epicurean thinker Zeno of Sidon argued that free speech should be taught as a skill, a techne, like medicine or navigation. I don’t know how much of that is actually Zeno, and how much Foucault, but it seems to me a vital thought for our time. In this crowded world, we must learn to navigate by speech, as ancient mariners learned to sail across the Aegean Sea. We cannot learn if the state never allows us to take the boat out. A good example of a community thrashing out its own rules of civility is Wikipedia. We have tried to do the same in the community standards of this website. If most of us can agree, in frank and civilised debate, what should be the voluntary, self-imposed limits to free debate in a particular community or context that is an achievement both of free speech and of civilisation. What do you think? This is a complex, sensitive subject. Some of our advisers disagree with the argument I have made here. Jeremy Waldron, for example, thinks there is a much stronger case to be made for European and Canadian-style legislation. Do have a look at those contrasting views. Then please add your own here.

Print Save
Published on: January 22, 2012 | 16 Comments

Comments (16)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. manishmicrobe says:

    Excellent piece! I agree with almost all of the points made here.

    My only worry associated with this proposed “civil” and courteous free speech is the remarkable ability of the same spoken language to be simultaneously civil and uncivil to different audiences. Accounting for a gradient of such differences in perception, I wonder if the final test of civility in tricky situations will indeed be the lack of violence/ violent overtures. And if that is the case, it may as well be codified as such in law!

  2. annemarie_detlef says:

    As a general principle I definitely agree that free speech should be a universal right. Contentwise, however, there should be restrictions.
    Considering the fact that communication occurs between two subjects, the sender and the recipient, both subject’s values matter in the process. The tricky part in the proposed principle therefore is ‘civility’.
    Civility itself restricts free speech. I think most people agree that the publication of the Muhammad cartoons were not an act of particular civility, because it offended the religious / moral values of the recipient group.
    How can we thus find the balance between the universal right to free speech and non-universal values of sender / recipients?

    • Janet Haney says:

      Hello Annemarie. I saw the Danish Cartoons for the first time this week. They were not shown in UK when the furore first broke out, and I didn’t think about them much again until recently (it was the DV8 dance event – Can We Talk About This? – that brought them back to mind, something I saw in London a few weeks ago). I would be disappointed if ‘most people’ agree that their publication was ‘not an act of particular civility’. But I would not be surprised that people had been frightened into saying such a thing after the alarming response of the murderous threats at the time. Remember – the cartoonist was threatened with a violent death:

      • annemarie_detlef says:

        Hi Janet, apologies for my late response. I hadn’t seen on my account that you commented on my post.
        I just had an argument with a girl studying Human Rights at LSE. In summary, she clearly argued that if she was a cartoonist, she would never (!) publish something which would so obviously assault a certain group. Would you do so? Why do you think that this case was not ‘not an act of particular civility’?

  3. Elvin Aliyev says:

    I disagree with most of the statements made in this article for one reason. All of the arguments made above are valid and work only if one assumes that a human is a rational and educated creature who will inform him or herself before making a decision or forming an opinion. That however is not true, and sadly enough many of us all fall under pressure by our envirnment and propaganda. These so called insults which one directs towards others under the excuse of freedom of speech are messages of hate. They in themselves want to hurt others and limit the freedom, human rights and the freedom of expression of a particular group. Therefore limiting the “freedom” in the “freedom of speech” is ironically an important part of achieving a more tolerant and civil society.
    Moreover, I completely disagree with the comment made about the Indian Penal Code. The history of the law is completely irrelevant. True, it might have been originally written for a different purpose but it doesn’t mean that it always has to be used just for that same purpose. If freedom of expression was once used as an excuse to limit the rights of colonized citizens, it does not mean that it now should be abolished because of its dirty history. In fact, as the author has stated it himself, there is huge room for interpretation in the issue of free speech, therefore this same law can be used in more noble ways.

  4. annemarie_detlef says:

    A very interesting and controversial article posted by Janet Haney – Kenen Malik on multiculturalism. He suggests that we can either pledge equality of cultures or equality of people, but not both. Thanks Janet :-) !

  5. Diosa says:

    Freie Meinungsäußerung ist wichtig, solange der Redner dabei nicht die Recht e anderer Menschen beschneidet oder andere Lebewesen diskriminiert.

  6. Psychokiller says:

    Freie Meinungsäußerung hängt vom Betrachter ab, jeder Mensch hat da so seine eigene Meinung zu, wie er “Freie Meinungsäußerung” versteht. In Deutschland z.b. muss man schon aufpassen was man sagt damit man nicht gleich als Rassist abgestämpelt wird, das beste beispiel dazu ist der Negerkuss, da es als Politisch nicht Korrekt angesehen wird, heist der Negerkuss nun Schokokuss. Und das alles nur wegen einer Vorgeschichte die schon eine ewigkeit her ist.
    Dementsprchend hängt es von der einzelnen Person ab wie er für sich “Freie meinungsäußerung” definiert, denn viele Menschen werden sich die genau Definition nicht durchlesen.

  7. gjs 65 says:

    Ich Denke, das Problem ist es nicht alles erlauben aber auch nicht alles verbieten, und die Mitte zu finden ist fast unmöglich.
    Da wir jetzt in eine Digitale Welt leben, sind Massen von Menschen schnell erreichbar und Worte und Zeile können viel Böses aber auch Gutes anrichten.
    Aber das wichtigste ist das Menschen, Völker nicht Beleidigt, Bloßgestellt, Lächerlich usw. gemacht werden.
    Da denke ich ist noch ein Nachholbedarf

  8. Brigitte says:

    “Selbst wer denkt, Gesetze sollten dazu da sein, ein Symbol zu setzen und eine Botschaft zu senden, muss sich fragen: ist dies die richtige Botschaft? Wollen wir nicht lieber, dass unsere Kinder verstehen dass eine Beleidigung, sei sie rassistisch, sexistisch, nationalistisch oder gegen bestimmte Altersgruppen gerichtet, immer den beleidigenden erniedrigt, und niemals den, der beleidigt wird?”

    Das finde ich als die richtige Einstellung zu den Menschen, die mit ihre Unwissenheit und Schwäche andere beleidigen wollen sollen wir als sich selbst “ernidrigt” sehen.

    Obwohl wir durch die schnelle Digitalle Welt jeder Zeit die möglichkeit haben sich zu informieren, genau nachforschen, wird trotzdem durch unwissenheit beleidigt und erniedrigt.
    Eine gute und Verständisvolle Erziehung bring uns dazu in dem richtigem Moment das richtige zu sagen, wie hier schon im Text geschrieben wird, würden wir niemals mit unsere Oma oder Vater genauso sprechen wie mit unsren Freunden,

    Leider viele Mißverstehen die Redefreiheit.

  9. Boris says:

    My opinion is that such kind of speech and expression of thoughts, jokes, etc. connected with immutable characteristics of people, shouldn’t be limited by law and society: it should be up to every person, what should he/she say and what shouldn’t. Up to his/her mind and conscience. Until it harms person.

  10. Publicspaceshult says:

    Some discussions about human difference cannot be civilly discussed; for example, racism should never be allowed.

  11. Dick McJohnson says:

    I am against racism, and I have nothing against any religion other than Islam. I think people should be entitled to say what they believe about Islam and the very real actions caused by Islam. Many people have had enough of the politically correct discourse that Islam is a religion of peace, etc etc, but are afraid to say so because they would immediately be labelled Islamophobes. Due to our tolerance, the non-Muslim inhabitants of Western countries are allowing ourselves to be steamrollered by Muslims and their increasingly intrusive demands – sharia law, changes in our foreign policy, etc. It seems to me that they are enemies in our midst and not loyal citizens. Islam is simply incompatible with Western democracy, and I demand that anyone who wants to say that be able to do so, and feel no compulsion to be silent about this most pressing of issues.

  12. Dick McJohnson says:

    I agree with ‘we speak openly about all kinds of human difference’, but the problem comes with defining ‘with civility’, because that is the point where certain groups will want to take offence at certain inconvenient truths, for instance that Islam is not a religion of peace and brotherly love.

  13. sebastianhuempfer says:


    You claim that “it is not … permitted to criticise Muslim immigration and Islam”. You “demand that anyone who wants to say that [Islam is incompatible with Western democracy] be able to do so, and feel no compulsion to be silent”. You “think people should be entitled to say what they believe about Islam”. I don’t understand what you mean.

    Who is stopping you from speaking your mind? Your views are right here, out in the open.

    Views very much like yours are all over the mainstream media. They are also being articulated by influential and widely-read bloggers. Just look here [], here [], here[], here[], here[], here[], or here[] – all circulating widely just in the last few days.

    How can you say that people are prevented from reading and writing such things when they and you are saying and writing them every day? Do you feel that what is being published does not go far enough? If that’s the case, look at the comment threads (if you can read German, you will particularly like this []), or Twitter, or Reddit, or Youtube. Legions of users post violently anti-Muslim statements there, which get likes and upvotes. Sometimes one or two people are arrested and later released without consequences if they are deemed to incite hatred or violence, for which they have to go much further than you do in your post; the cases your link referred to involved direct threats. Why should those be legal?

    Views similar to yours are also represented by politicians in the UK [], the Netherlands [], Germany [], France [], Austria [] & Switzerland [] & Italy [] (where these parties were or are in government), Denmark [], the US [] and, I believe, your own country, Finland.

    Many political parties cater to the “I’m not racist but…” and “We can’t even say/do what we want anymore” crowds; they have plenty of politicians who warn that “sharia law” will be imposed on their countries if they do not protect western liberal democracy against ‘Islam’, including by deporting fellow citizens they disagree with. And gain, if the likes of Farage and Le Pen do not go far enough for your taste, there are even more radical parties in most of these countries, who in some cases receive state funding and in all cases enjoy the same police protection as everyone else when they want to voice their opinions.

    You seem to think your views are being censored by the police, political correctness and/or a liberal bias in the news media. I just don’t see any evidence that that’s the case. There is absolutely no shortage of anti-Muslim sentiment in our public discourse. On the contrary, people espousing such sentiments have been allowed to inject their poison into the veins of most western body politics, clouding the judgement of policy-makers and an often ill-informed public, so that bearded men and veiled women and conservative Muslims are now widely perceived as ‘Islamists’, ‘radicals’ and/or ‘oppressed women’, and many in the west have been convinced that ‘sharia law’ is the devil incarnate, and ‘jihad’ some global plot hatched in the 7th century to kill all infidels. (Evidence here [] and here [].)

    So why do you say that people like you are being silenced when you clearly have a platform in the media, on the internet, on the street and in politics? It must be because, beyond the crowd in your own echo-chamber, you have no audience. Despite everything, not many people agree with views as extreme as yours, even though more and more agree with a diluted version of your views because of the platform given to anti-Muslim rhetoric in the media and online. 

    What’s more, most people probably dislike you rather instinctively. Starting a post with I’m-not-racist-but doesn’t help; nor does calling 2 billion people “naive”, or 12 million fellow citizens “enemies in our midst”. Maybe a bit of civility would do the trick, Dick? You may think you are being censored, but in reality you are just being ostracised by the majority who disagree with your weak arguments and/or your vicious rhetoric.

    All your claims rest on the assumption that you can extrapolate from the ‘Islam’ of criminals like Michael Adebolajo and Anjem Choudary to the faith(s) of billions of people living all over the world and throughout history. You assume that what hate preachers say and governments do under the banner of religion is the one and only interpretation of a kaleidoscopic and fluent faith and centuries of practice, law and scripture. Yet you only apply this twisted reasoning to Islam.

    If you applied your logic to Christianity, you would have to conclude that ‘Christians’ (i.e. everyone from 21st-century Quakers to 12th-century crusaders and Jesus himself) are and always were like Anders Breivik and Terry Jones; that they are and were and will always be evil because some (democratic!) majority-Christian countries have barbarous criminal justice systems (including the death penalty, extrajudicial assassinations and torture); that Christianity is inherently racist and homophobic and misogynistic because it was and is used by many of its followers to justify slavery and resist movements for equality to this day; and that many Christians want to remove the liberal democracy that is incompatible with their faith, and replace it with Biblical law.

    Those who really care about their faith, in my personal experience, care about all of it, especially the bits that ask them to do what they don’t want to do. Those who abuse religion to justify their crimes always seem to care about nothing but “an eye for an eye” and the randomly picked and decontextualised quotes that give them an excuse for what they want to do for reasons unrelated to religion. So what’s the point of lumping them all together and condemning the many for the actions of the few? Condemning all members of an arbitrarily and loosely defined group for the actions of some of its ‘members’ is either nonsensical or bigotted. But if you are going to engage in such generalisations, you will have to at least hold everyone to the same absurd standard, or people will put labels on you that you do not seem to want to carry. You can’t insist on your right to call something you think is a spade a spade but deny others the right to do the same.

Leave a comment in any language

Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.