Tag Archives: free speech

Neutral standards for advertisers are not a blasphemy law

The right to offend religious sentiment is a necessary part of a free society where we are not subject to religion. So, when Humanists UK protest about a recent ruling by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority, I might be expect to join in. But I’m not.

“Demi Lovato must have the right to blaspheme”, declares Stephen Knight, a writer I usually agree with. But a right to blaspheme is not the same as the right to display a blasphemous poster on an advertising billboard in a public place. I will strongly defend the publication of Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but that doesn’t mean they would be appropriate on billboards in Piccadilly Circus.

The standard for acceptable advertisements is tighter than for publication in one’s own magazine or on one’s own website. That’s because the public encounters adverts when going about their daily life. They aren’t opting in to seeing them, as they would be when picking up a copy of Charlie Hebdo. As a result, the Advertising Standards Authority requires that adverts not cause “serious or widespread” offence, taking into account “prevailing standards in society”. The threshold will, of course, be subjective, but the ASA take their role seriously, including the polling of public opinion.

The advert in question, for an album by Demi Lovato, depicts the singer in a sexualised pose while wearing bondage gear. That alone makes the advert questionable. According to ASA polling, objections to sexualised images are the most common form of objection to adverts. Then there is the album’s name, “Holy Fvck”, alluding to a swear word that many would regard as inappropriate for a public billboard. Further, the combination of these items with a crucifix, a symbol strongly associated with Christianity, would indeed offend people.

This perfume advert was banned by the ASA owing to the perceived sexualisation of a young model.

Perhaps that offence is the whole point of the album’s title and artwork, which would be absolutely fine in itself. “Corruption of youth” is, after all, the raison d’etre of rock music. But the ASA ruling is not an imposition of a blasphemy law, no-one is objecting to the album or to its art-work, only to its display on an advertising billboard. And in that the ASA is just upholding a generally applicable standard.

I reject the idea that religious groups have any special right to not be offended, but, equally, nor should offense to religious sentiment be discounted as less important than offense for any other reason. If the ASA would ban an advert because it is offensive to Manchester United football fans, then it is appropriate to ban an advert that is offensive to Christians.

Adverts by the fashion group French Connection UK were widely accepted but did arouse comment.

Humanists UK are calling this a “de facto blasphemy law”, and are petitioning the ASA that “religious offence should never be grounds to ban an advert”.

But do they think that offensiveness should never be a consideration in banning an advert, or are they asking for religious offence to be a type of offence that is specially disregarded?

I can’t agree with either. Yes there needs to be a threshold of offensiveness for adverts, and, since religious people are our fellow citizens, their sentiments should count equally to those of others. Traditionally, of course, religion has had way too much special privilege (and still does), but we shouldn’t now advocate for religious beliefs to be treated worse than other beliefs.

Provided that the ASA try to apply the rules neutrally — so that religious and non-religious forms of offence are weighed equally — I’m comfortable with their ruling that this advert fell on the wrong side of the line.

2020: A tale of two deaths

Amidst the high numbers of Covid-related deaths in 2020, two non-Covid deaths have stood out:

One incident started when a black, 46-yr-old male attempted to pass a fake 20-dollar bill (he had previous convictions for crimes including armed robbery). The shopkeeper judged that the man was high on drugs, and, being concerned that he was unfit to drive, called the police. Floyd resisted arrest, wrestling with the officers, and refusing to get in the police car while repeatedly saying “I can’t breath”. At that point he was not being restrained, so whether the words related to the effect of drugs, or were part of a charade to evade arrest, is unclear. Eventually he fell to the ground and was kept there by a policeman placing his knee on Floyd’s neck, while he continued to repeat “I can’t breath”. He suffered a heart attack and died. Continue reading

Definitions, loyalty oaths, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia

Gavin Williamson, the UK’s Secretary of State for Education, is demanding that universities sign up to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism:

A “definition” is (quoting Oxford Dictionaries) an “explanation of the meaning of a word or phrase”. And dictionaries give clear and succinct definitions of anti-Semitism: Continue reading

Twitter bans, misgendering and free speech

I am the latest to fall foul of Twitter’s attempts to impose a particular ideology by labelling any dissent as “hateful”. I Tweet only occasionally with only a small number of “followers”, and so a month-old Tweet of mine would be seen by almost no-one unless they were deliberately searching for Tweets to be “offended” by.

The Tweet that supposedly amounted to “hateful conduct” is this one, which I reproduce here in the (slight) hope that doing so might irritate the sort of person who reports such Tweets:

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The European Court guts free-speech protections

Just as Ireland votes to repeal its blasphemy laws, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favour of Austrian blasphemy laws. They’ve upheld the conviction of a woman who was fined for calling Muhammed a “paedophile”, a reference to his marriage to Aisha, which according to mainstream Islamic tradition occured when she was six, and was consummated when she was nine.

I presume that the underlying logic goes like this. In keeping with trendy modern thought, they analyse everything in terms of power structures. Muslims in Austria are mostly a relatively recent immigrant community and are non-White, therefore they are “oppressed”. The convicted woman is a member of the Austrian “Freedom Party”, who are opposed to immigration, are regarded as “far right”, and are mostly White. Therefore they are the “oppressors”. And it’s the job of a Human Rights court to support the oppressed against the oppressors, so that’s how they ruled.

The convoluted excuse they came up with is that Muhammed continued to be married to Aisha when she was an adult, and indeed had sexual relations with other women, and therefore was not “primarily” attracted to under-age girls, and therefore the term “paedophile” is an unjustified insult. (Never mind that the vast majority of people who rightly get called “paedophiles” also have sex with adults.)

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Can we please distinguish between speech and actions?

The distinction between speech and action matters. Shouting fire in a crowded theatre endangers people’s safety and so is not just speech but also an “action” that can rightfully be outlawed. In contrast, showing contempt by burning the US flag or a copy of the Quran is “speech” and so should not be outlawed. The act of burning an item of your own property is lawful, and the added contemptuous attitude amounts to speech. This is highlighted by the fact that the method of disposal of old flags recommended by the US military is … burning them, though respectfully. Likewise some Islamic authorities recommend burning as the method of disposal of old copies of the Quran that are no longer fit for reading.

Those in favour of free speech generally hold that any speech that stops short of incitement to violence, or otherwise putting people in direct physical danger, should be lawful and accepted. Those against free speech think otherwise. But they don’t want to admit to being against free speech; few people do. So they label those in favour of free speech as “free speech absolutists”, and begin their arguments with: “I am fully in favour of free speech, but …”. From there they muddy the water by trying to negate the distinction between speech and action. Continue reading

What the Muslim Council of Britain unfortunately did not say about Louis Smith

Statement (unfortunately not) by the Muslim Council of Britain regarding the Louis Smith video and the resulting ban by British Gymnastics. (Link to BBC account)

As Muslims we greatly appreciate the freedom to practice and voice our religion in a country that has not traditionally been Islamic. Such freedoms can only exist in a country where people can dissent from, and indeed criticise, other people’s beliefs, political views and religions. We recognise that, from Swift’s A Modest Proposal to Monty Python’s Life of Brian, Britain has a long tradition of satire and mockery that examines and holds to account both political and religious beliefs.

We maintain that truth has nothing to fear from examination, and that only falsehood and error seek the protection of censorship. Holding our religion to be the highest truth, we declare that it is far beyond being damaged by satire or mockery. We declare our truths to the world, openly inviting people to examine them for error. Critics please speak up, since we are confident that we can more than meet any challenge. If you want to mock us, go ahead! Continue reading

The Southern Poverty Law Center brands Maajid Nawaz an “extremist”

So the Southern Poverty Law Center have now declared that everyone must submit to Islamic rules about blasphemy, and that if one does not then one is an “anti-Muslim extremist”. How have we come to this? How can it be that those who think that participation in a religion should be a free choice, and that we should not be obliged to submit to the rules and diktats of someone else’s religion, are now regarded as “extremists”?

It used to be the case that “free speech” included the right to speak in ways that upset people. The point was often made that speech that upsets no-one does not need protection; it is only speech that someone else does not want you to say that needs support from the fundamental principle that in a free society we need to be able to speak our mind and criticize others.

But no, “free speech” now has clear limits. If someone else is at all upset by anything you say, then you are making them “feel unsafe”, and making them feel unsafe is an act of violence. And if you want to pursue your speech down that road, then you are an extremist, the sort of person whom the Southern Poverty Law Center was set up to oppose. Continue reading

Nigel Biggar is wrong on Charlie Hebdo and free speech

The conflict between Free Speech and Islam is surely going to be a defining battle of the 21st Century. Worryingly, many in the West consider that the best way to defuse the battle is to make concessions to Islam. For example, take the article just published in The Times by Nigel Biggar, the Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford (non-paywall article version).

Biggar writes: Continue reading

Why are we allowing student unions to veto speech?

The principle of free expression is increasingly under threat across the Western world. Speech that might upset or annoy someone is being categorised as “hate speech” and thus placed beyond the pale in acceptable society. According to a recent Pew poll, 38% of British people now agree that the government should be able to prevent people saying things that are offensive to minority groups. Worryingly, even fewer support free speech in the rest of Europe.

Pew Poll on Free Speech

And of course it would be entirely up to those minority groups to tell us what they deem offensive, which would allow them a veto over all public discourse. Nor are such concerns merely theoretical. Currently we have a preacher being prosecuted for describing Islam as “Satanic”. Whatever happened to the very bedrock of Western liberties, Voltaire’s: “I disagree with everything you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it”? Continue reading