Last week, a controversy erupted in Batley, Yorkshire, after a teacher showed his class a cartoon of the prophet Mohammed, during a discussion about the Charlie Hebdo massacre of 2015.
The school has many Muslim students and some of their parents were angry at the teacher for having done this. As we are all probably aware by now, some branches of Islam (not all) consider any depiction of the Prophet to be undesirable and blasphemous.
Where there is an alleged blasphemy, free speech rights are engaged, and people like me become motivated to opine. In this particular case, I was not so much motivated as mobilised: TalkRADIO called me at short notice to chat to Kevin O’Sullivan about it. Here’s our conversation, the first draft of my thoughts on the matter.
There is more to say, however. As I have come to realise whenever such controversies kick-off, there are usually several issues rolled up in the debate. I think it’s more intellectually honest to post ‘notes’ on what those issues are, rather than posting a piece of unequivocal click-bait that condemns one side or the other.
Remember the Seyi Omooba controversy? Back in March 2019, she was cast as the lead in the Curve Theatre’s production of The Color Purple. Soon after this was announced, a Facebook post from 2014 emerged in which Omooba said that she believed homosexuality was a sin. Many people complained that someone with such beliefs would be cast to play an LGBT character such as Celie (who, after suffering abuse, falls in love with another woman).
Such was the furore that the theatre recast the role, and Ms Omooba was dropped by her agents. She took them both to an Employment Tribunal, claiming discrimination based on her religious beliefs. I wrote about the case at the time, asking whether homophobic views should receive any kind of special protection when veiled by religious belief. I also wondered why a five-year-old Facebook post had been ‘dredged up’ and whether Ms Omooba had ‘kept her views to herself’ or been sufficiently evangelical that it was appropriate that they affected her employment prospects.
Whenever there is a free speech controversy, many people like to parrot a common refrain: “Free speech does not mean freedom from consequences.”
This is true, but it’s also incomplete. Free speech does (or should) mean freedom from some consequences. For example, it can never be appropriate to murder cartoonists because of offensive drawings, or to issue a fatwa in response to a magical-realist novel that insults a particular religion.
Most free speech controversies that splatter themselves over the tabloids and Twitter timelines are really an argument about what consequences are appropriate for the perceived transgression.
Most people agree that the most extreme punishments are rarely, if ever, appropriate. No one should ever be subject to violence because of what they say or believe, and criminalising someone for what they have said should be limited to those who actively incite violence.
As someone who blogs about freedom of expression I really can’t let the ridiculous burkini controversy in France go by without comment. Policemen have literally been forcing women to disrobe in public. That is deeply illiberal and wrong. The arguments for enforcing such a policy do not stand up. Continue reading “Ban the Burkini Ban”