Freedom of Expression: The Right To Offend?

Freedom of Expression: The Right To Offend?

As France is barely beginning to recover from the Charlie Hebdo attack, the bloggersphere, the twittersphere and cable news shows have been raging with passionate debates over freedom of expression. Given its aftermath, should Charlie Hebdo have published the controversial cartoons? Arguments seem to be centered around the "right to offend", the "right not to offend" and "the limits of free speech". Some are maintaining that there should be no limits on free speech period. Some are seeing it as the incitement of hatred. Some are claiming that it was a publicity stunt to salvage the failing satirical paper. And some are accusing other news outlets of cowardice for not republishing the cartoons. Mostly, these are misplaced arguments. As often construed, freedom of expression is not really about "the right to offend". Yet, it is regularly tested at the extremes.

Freedom of expression has never been a free-for-all. Governments have constituted various laws restricting hate speech, defamation, sedition, threats, porn... And almost without exception, artists, authors, journalists, editors, publishers and TV news outlets regularly self-censor. Some subjects and targets are easy to cover and satirize without having to worry about triggering a societal backlash, while others are simply "untouchable". Irrespective of what politicians and the free press might claim, there is no such thing as "the right to offend equally" in any society. And, coercion by the more powerful and influential has always been an effective force in selective self-censorship. Journalist Glenn Greenwald makes this exact point in a recent article.

Whether self-imposed, formally instituted by governments, or informally established using some form of coercion by various non-governmental organizations, such as universities, corporations, and lobbyists, censorship is and has always been a fact of life. Today, the real Freedom of Expression concern is not, what is being censored. Today, we need to be concerned about that which is not being censored. Advertisers, lobbyists, politicians, propagandists and the news media are allowed to disseminate incomplete, selective and false information with full impunity under the the guise of freedom of expression. There is no effective way to hold them accountable. Furthermore, on issues that actually matter to us, there is often a casual conspiracy among the "sources of information". Yesterday's post has more on that point.

Freedom of expression should not be construed as "the right to offend", "the right to lie", "the right to misinform" or "the right omit". Especially when it is equated to the freedom of the press.

Recently, I've posted a number of articles related to "Freedom of Speech". If interested:
Freedom of Speech?
Freedom of Expression: The Right To Offend?
Freedom of ... Thought, Consciousness, Religion, Expression, Speech
The Right To Be Stupid?
Freedom Of The Press: Coercion vs Threat vs Self-Interest
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