Free expression is not a right to incite
The callous, calculated and hate-fuelled assassination of the French journalists has taken extremism to new levels of depravity, and the natural response is revulsion and a determination not to be cowed into submission.
However, those who call for the widespread displaying of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in an act of defiance against the brutal murders in Paris are wrong.
To do so would be to target the religion, not the extremists, and would merely serve to drive divisions between the Muslim population and other sections of society.
Colin Hunter’s exhortation to councils to plaster the cartoons on buses and billboards (Letters, 9 January) is particularly questionable. This would expose all peaceable Muslims to, in their eyes, offensive material, and would also engender fear of reprisals from a public fired up by hatred of Muslims, and by intolerance of their religion.
When the right to offend slips into the right to incite hatred, however unintentional that progression may be, society becomes a dangerous place for all of us.
The limits to freedom of expression in the modern world, assessed by Joyce McMillan (Perspective, 9 January), are very much self- imposed.
Many of us do think twice before saying something that we believe but might cause offence to those we have befriended, loved or simply work alongside.
Many policies in organisations on dignity at work and non-harassment stress the importance not of what is actually said but warn about the impact words may have on the person to whom they are addressed.
The fashion for political correctness, with its roots very much in the civil rights protests and equalities legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, does make many people nervous about speaking out on matters that they think important.
None of this should counter a simple point. There can be no possible justification for resort to violence against those who express opinions with which we disagree.
The atrocities in Paris need to remind us, indeed, not just that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance; there are those who, in support of a cause, will stop at nothing to eradicate people and institutions that have offended them.
It is a challenge to many Western values, to liberty and to the maintenance of civilised standards. But I think we should remember that freedom of expression can never be absolute.
Restrictions on it are sometimes necessary to protect the dignity of others, national security and, let’s be honest, sometimes business considerations.
In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy cool heads are needed to determine where those restrictions should lie.
To start his crusade for free speech I suggest Colin Hunter (Letters, 9 January) go to an appropriate football match and sing proscribed songs.
He should be careful over which end of the ground he attends so that it is only the attentions of the police he has to worry about.
Before doing so he might like to ponder your leader (8 January) advocating a more nuanced approach to this complex matter.
The danger inherent in freedom of speech is that it has no definable limits; this inevitably leads to the expression of extreme views which cause offence to others, often leading in turn to reactions of varying severity.
But is it really the case that the trigger for the Charlie Hebdo massacre was the extremist mindset of a group of violent Muslims? Only, in my opinion, if one overlooks the element of deliberate and repeated provocation in defiance of prior experience.
Consider the publication’s history: in 2006 it was threatened because of plans to publish a Danish cartoon ridiculing the prophet Muhammad. In 2011 its offices were firebombed for featuring Muhammad as a “guest editor”, and carrying a front page cartoon of him.
In 2012 it rejected appeals from the French president not to print cartoons of a naked Muhammad; riot police had to be stationed outside the premises.
Only this week, it publicised a controversial novel about a future France ruled by hardline Islamists with women barred from working.
The phrase “asking for it” barely covers the irresponsibility and disregard for public safety involved: what if bombs had been used instead of Kalashnikovs?
In response to Tim Flinn (Letters, 9 January), there is such a thing as the right to free speech and no such thing as the right to murder.
To demand that free speech must be “responsible” is such a vague term that it can only mean the abolition of freedom of expression.