As a freedom lover, and as an MP, I support free speech.
As a moderator of this site and as a legislator, I appreciate there do have to be legal limits to free speech. Today I invite you to explore what limits should be placed on this crucial right. I invite you to do so in ways I can easily publish.
There have been many fine defences of free speech in the media over the last two days. I also note that the BBC and the main newspapers decided against reproducing the cartoons which were cited in connection with the mass murder and outrage in Paris. I here will stick to their line.
We can all agree that the barbarism in Paris is inexcusable. Our thoughts are with the families of those who lost loved ones in the various murders.
To have a vibrant democracy all institutions, especially government and people in power, have to be exposed to public criticism and popular scrutiny. To have a vibrant democracy there also have to be open and agreed limits to how far people can go in exercising their right to free speech. Satire, biting comment and cartoons all have their role to play.
Most people also agree that individuals, even individuals in elected office, have the right to protection against harmful and false allegations. To have a strong but healthy debate people need to be able to criticise or ridicule individuals, but not to make false claims without the individual concerned having the right to demand an apology and damages for the extreme cases. I regularly delete comments for this site because they make claims – often about my political opponents – that are hurtful if untrue, are often lies, or are difficult to prove. Comparisons of people with views you do not like to Hitler for example are common but normally excessive or disproportionate.
Most people also agree that groups, churches and other institutions should have to accept criticism and satire along with the rest of us. However, we also do need law to keep this within acceptable bounds. On this site I tend to protect institutions as I myself do not wish to attack or libel them and do not have the time to be dragged into disputes if the institution hits back.
To take an extreme case, Germany before the wars allowed and encouraged harsh language against Jews, which gave way to causal violence and discrimination which led to a programme of mass murder from the state. The development of insult and false allegation at the beginning helped fan the rest. This bitter history is part of the reason we have a law against inciting hatred.
The difficult issue for any democracy is to know what is fair comment, what is permissible satire and banter, and what is unacceptable racist abuse or incitement to hatred. At a time when we come together rightly to support free speech, we need to remember the daily compromises and judgements that editors have to make. We all need to consider the impact our language will have on those hearing it before making a public statement. We all also need to condemn unequivocally those who regard mass murder as an acceptable way of life to make a higher religious or political point.
People will enjoy the irony, but I have deleted more responses than usual to this topic as I am busy and do not have the time to edit each of the long contributions that pose interesting issues.