I watched with horror a TV documentary on the Charlie Hebdo murders last night. It reminded me that, at the time, I had published a blog post that questioned the decision to publish material that offended religious beliefs. I followed that up with another blog post (after reconsidering the issues) that supported those who have the courage to challenge dogma and poke fun at religious extremism.
The courts in Belfast have recently ruled that a Pastor’s sermon which was published online, and described Islam as a doctrine spawned in hell, was not ‘grossly offensive’. This legal ambiguity means that offensiveness is permissible up to the point that it becomes ‘grossly offensive’. How that is interpreted allows minority groups to be attacked from the pulpits and online for their sincerely held beliefs.
Freedom of expression comes with the caveat that if you are prepared to offend others publicly, there may be some who see no remedy in waiting for courts to deliberate whether there was anything ‘gross’ in the offensive communication.
The moot point is should the legal protection of freedom of expression outweigh offensive communications that may reasonably be expected to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient, or anyone else intended to see it?
This link clarifies the UK’s legislation on freedom of expression. Here is an extract on the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 which is particularly helpful –
“In essence, it states that the new offence shouldn’t be used in a way that prohibits or restricts any: discussion, criticism, antipathy, dislike,ridicule,
insult, or abuse of a religion or its beliefs or practices.
And it cannot be used to prohibit urging adherents to cease practicing their religion. To become apostates.
It seems to me that the balance Parliament was striving for here is very clear. There seems to have been a desire to interfere with free expression as little as possible in the field of ideas.
People can be expected to face robust challenges to their ideas.”