The Human Right to Offend

Self-censorship in the face of intimidation has another name: cowardice.


Jyllands Posten

The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, by Flemming Rose, translated by Martin Aitken, Cato Institute, 240 pp., $24.95

No human right is more important than free speech. Without it no other rights can be asserted and defended. Free speech—the right of anyone to criticize and evaluate the claims of anyone else—is the best environment for discovering political, social, economic, and scientific truths. Political, religious, and ideological absolutists cannot tolerate criticism that punctures and wounds their delusions and dogmas. They look for ways to shut the offensive speakers up, including murder.

In addition to killing specific critics, such murders also terrorize others into self-censorship. That was the aim of the assassinations earlier this year at Charlie Hebdo in Paris and at the Krudttonden Café in Copenhagen.

Any attacks on free speech and the free press must be fiercely rejected, Flemming Rose argues in his passionate new book, The Tyranny of Silence. Rose knows whereof he speaks. He is the editor who commissioned drawings of Muhammad to illustrate an article on free speech for the Danish newspaper the Jyllands-Posten in 2005. Rose was inspired by the news that several illustrators had declined to draw Muhammad for a children's book out of fear of violent Muslim reprisals. His aim was to "highlight self-censorship and its effects on cultural life" and "to fight fears that underlay self-censorship." Rose further argued that it was condescending and even racist to presume that Muslims were intolerant and would react violently to cartoons depicting their prophet.

Sure enough, while many Muslims found the illustrations offensive, most did not react violently. But some Islamist extremists did issue death threats, and several have attempted to murder some of the cartoonists. For example, a Muslim named David Headley was arrested in 2009 for planning an attack on the Jyllands-Posten offices that eerily parallels the later assault on Charlie Hebdo. Offended Islamists have twice tried to kill cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who drew the famous image in which Muhammad's turban contained a lit bomb. Rose reports an incident in which a Muslim man shouted at Westergaard, "May you burn in hell!" To which Westergaard coolly replied, "Can we talk about it now, or should we wait until we meet there?"

Riots broke out in many majority-Muslim countries, and mobs attacked several Danish embassies. Officials from several Muslim nations demanded that Denmark and other European countries apologize for the offensive cartoons and prevent any similar offenses in the future. ("Muslims were now demanding that non-Muslims, in non-Muslim countries, adhere to Islamic precepts," Rose observes.) And the Organization of the Islamic Conference has stepped up its efforts to get the United Nations behind a ban on "the defamation of religion." Such a move would essentially globalize restrictions on blasphemy.

As alarming as the actions of Muslim governments and individual believers have been, the reactions of many European governments and some supposed guardians of free speech have been even more dismaying. In Denmark, the public prosecutor considered bringing a case against the newspaper for blasphemy or racism. Out of fear of Islamist attacks, art exhibitions have been sanitized, movies suppressed, and people punished for "hate speech." The European Court of Human Rights has defined hate speech as "all form of expressions which spread, incite, promote, or justify hatred based on intolerance (including religious intolerance)." This completely turns the concept of tolerance on its head.

Tyranny of Silence

As Rose correctly argues, tolerance properly understood is the ability to accept speech one dislikes. "When we focus on non-discrimination and equality, and aim to empower the aggrieved, tolerance is no longer about the ability to tolerate things we don't like," he explains. "It becomes the ability to keep quiet and refrain from saying things that others may dislike." Calls to ban offensive speech sacrifices diversity of expression in the name of respecting diversity of culture. "If we accept the idea that people have a right not to be offended, we will end up with a tyranny of silence, for almost any speech may be deemed offensive," declares Rose.

Insult fundamentalists justify their efforts to restrict speech with the catchphrase, "Freedom of speech is not the same as the freedom to offend." In fact, there is no freedom of speech if people cannot offend those who would deny women equal rights, persecute homosexuals, and commit violence against people who do not share their faith. "The idea that if you say something that might be construed as offensive, you somehow restrict the liberty of others is nonsense," argues Rose. He is entirely right.

Rose praises the United States for its strong protections of free speech based on the First Amendment. And yet there are Americans who believe that certain speech is so offensive that it warrants a violent response. Last year Mireille Miller-Young, a sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara, grabbed a graphic anti-abortion poster displayed at a table on campus where two pro-lifers were handing out literature. Arguing much like Muslims offended by the Muhammad cartoons, she defended her actions by saying that the images constituted "hate speech" that had "triggered" her vandalism. Happily, she was sentenced to three years of probation for her attempt to suppress speech she disliked.

Nothing undercuts the power and propaganda of tyrants and religious zealots more than the right of people to speak and write uncensored. In a free society, people can pursue and propound their own versions of the truth. In a fear society, everyone must submit to and live with lies. Societies in which citizens can speak freely flourish; societies muzzled by despots shrivel. 

"We know from history that if we submit to terror and threats; what we do not get is less terror and fewer threats," writes Rose. "What we get is more terror and more threats." Self-censorship in the face of intimidation has another name: cowardice.

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  1. Ron just doesn’t understand that only popular, inoffensive speech deserves protection.

    1. “Free speech.”

      *wink* *wink* You know what we mean.

      1. Just as long as it doesn’t include inappropriately deadpan Gmail parodies of well-connected academics. This type of offensive speech is punishable with a prison sentence in the United States. See the documentation of our leading criminal satire case at:


        The conclusion is clear: Mr. Bailey is right to condemn the cowardice of self-censorship and vandalism, just as long as he is also careful not to condemn those members of the legal and academic communities who courageously collaborate with the criminal justice system in suppressing speech we really don’t like in this country.

    2. Speech isn’t free if it offends, because it it a prison to those offended. Therefore, everyone can agree that common-sense restrictions on offensive speech are reasonable. After all, you can’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater, because that’s the law.


      1. Who could object to reasonable, common-sense restrictions? Only unreasonable people, that’s who.

      2. Seriously. Every time you hear someone use this line, tell them the truth:

        It was made a legal standard to suppress people speaking out about the First World War draft, and stopped being a legal standard in 1969.


      3. Sure, speech can be free even when it offends. I think the distinction you’re trying to get at concerns whether free speech is an UNLIMITED right.

        There’s a difference between free speech that offends while at the same time not slandering, threatening or otherwise infringing upon someone else’s freedom and free speech that offends by being slanderous, threatening, libelous or inciting of a public panic under false pretenses.

    3. Offensive speech has real costs, therefore it is not free. Only free speech is free, nobody disagrees about that.

    4. If it isn’t government approved, it is racist rapist hate speech.

  2. But this does not apply to climate change deniers!


    1. Rest easy knowing that were I the evil dictator overlord, he’d be among the first to be silenced.

      1. “Remember when I said I’d kill you last? I lied…”

        1. “You think I can smell them coming?”

          “I did.”

  3. The European Court of Human Rights has defined hate speech as “all form of expressions which spread, incite, promote, or justify hatred based on intolerance (including religious intolerance).” This completely turns the concept of tolerance on its head.

    The irony in that statement made me laugh out loud.

    1. Tolerance means not tolerating intolerance. Therefore, this makes perfect sense.

      It’s YOU who needs help! Report to Camp #3652 Monday for…..cathartic instructional exercises…

    2. I like that these expressions don’t even need to justify violence, just hatred. It’s pretty pathetic that Europeans have become such eunuchs that they are now deeply frightened of a fucking emotion.

  4. No human right is more important than free speech

    That’s not true. It’s the right to other people’s money that is the most important. Tony told me so.

    1. If you can’t force others to labor on your behalf, you aren’t really free.
      This is what ‘Tony’ actually believes.

      1. Little red Marxians like Tony live in a schizophrenic world. They bemoan the fact that there are poor people in the world while at the very same time express their concern with overpopulation, or rail about income inequality while attacking “consumerism.” What is the point of having more money if there isn’t more stuff to buy?

      2. “Tony” doesn’t believe anything. Well, it believes in being a sockpuppet and deliberately riling you guys up and “making the puppets dance”. If you don’t respond to it, it can’t do that. And then it loses and you win!

        1. “Tony” doesn’t believe anything


      3. Who cares if the men with guns are making rules you don’t like as long as they’re giving you shiny things?

    2. And the right to force harder working folks into a union. american socialist imparted this wisdom

  5. Basing censorship on offensiveness is even worse in principle than basing censorship on falsehood.

    At least if you suppress someone for denying the divinity of Christ, on the grounds that the doctrine is false, there’s an orthodoxy you can consult to see if your views are safe. But if the crime is to hurt someone else’s feelings, there is no safe zone, since there are as many feelings to be hurt as there are people determined to take offense – which is a lot of people. In that context, either affirming or denying the divinity of Christ (for example) can be censored based on offensiveness to Muslims or Christians, as the case may be.

    In short, truth ceases to be a factor, and even true statements must be suppressed for the sake of civic peace, which being translated means a heckler’s (or bomber’s) veto.

    1. Yep. When my company started to say (in the 90’s) that harassment was whatever the “victim” thought was harassment (essentially), I knew we were in trouble.

      Sure enough, the government’s there now, which is really a problem…

    2. As indicated below, my example of being prosecuted for insulting Christians is largely theoretical.

    3. “Basing censorship on offensiveness is even worse in principle than basing censorship on falsehood.”

      Worse for the censored, but better for the censor. Nothing better than entirely arbitrary power.

  6. “all form of expressions which spread, incite, promote, or justify hatred based on intolerance (including religious intolerance)”

    You know the worst part about this? Even if you believe that hate speech laws designed to protect gays or women or ethnic minorities are acceptable, including religion in the mix is inexcusable.

    Religions have ACTUAL BELIEFS that inform their worldviews and ideologies. As such, saying that people can’t engage in ‘religious intolerance’ in effect means instituting anti-blasphemy laws. Moreover, there are certain religions that are in desperate need of a reformation given the hundreds of millions of Muslims globally who support honor killings and the less violent but still substantial (and sometimes dangerous) number of anti-gay bigots among Christians.

    So when you don’t allow active criticism of a religion, you deny religions the opportunity to improve and modernize their doctrines, even when they desperately need to do so. In effect, this actually makes society vastly less tolerant since intolerant aspects of different ideological religions go unchallenged.

    1. That reminds me of the Cold War joke about the American who boasted that he could stand in the middle of Washington, D.C. and say “the President of the United States is an idiot!” and a Russian responded by saying, “so what, I can stand in the middle of Moscow and say, ‘the President of the United States is an idiot!”

      Who gets prosecuted for insulting Christians? If you want to be prosecuted, you either have to insult Muslims, or insult the secularists and their ideologies.

      1. “insult the secularists and their ideologies”

        No one ever goes to jail for insulting atheists or secularists.

        That’s another wonderful irony about this whole thing. Secularists (and, in many cases, left-wing atheists) are applauding and supporting laws that are used to protect their ideological opponents from rightful criticism and mockery.

        A real problem is that if the only ideology you’re not allowed to insult and mock is Islam (which, in practice, seems to be how this works) then guess which ideology is going to have a massive edge in recruitment and conversion?

        Secular atheist societies are basically giving a specific religion special dispensation to agitate on behalf of a religious state while no one has the ability to object or mock such people as forcefully as they ought to.

        1. The old militant secularists wouldn’t have stood for this stuff. Can you imagine Robert Ingersoll or Bertrand Russell wanting to put someone in prison for denouncing Islam?

          1. Your old-school secularist would at least know something about the religious he was criticizing. Nietzsche quote a whole passage of Tertullian, in the original Latin, to show the awfulness of Christianity.

            A modern secularist would be like, “Turtle who?” Then he would get into his Prius (the one with the Darwin fish on the back) and worry about how fracking is harming Mother Gaia.

            To this sort of individual, the specific content of religious doctrine is less important than the “ick” factor. Religion is what rednecks do, or people in turbans, or Mom and Dad.

            So keep religion out of the public square. Under this analysis, anyone who brings up a religious topic is like someone who brings a skunk to a picnic – and should be punished accordingly.

            1. (Present company excepted, of course)

        2. I think those laws often are used against people for making anti-Semitic statements as well.

    2. Yes, well said. To France’s (slight) credit, that distinction seems to be why the Charlie Hebdo people aren’t prosecuted for their cartoons that bother Muslims.

      Even the use of “intolerance” in that context is dumb.
      I’m quite tolerant of anyone’s religion and I don’t hate anyone who hasn’t done something particularly awful. As long as they don’t use violence or force of law to get their way, they can believe what they want. If I go around saying “Mohammad is a sheep fucker and Islam is a stupid religion”, that’s not intolerance or hate, it’s just kind of rude. People have really lost track of what tolerance is supposed to mean.

  7. I believe in free speech, but

    Is a phrase that sounds worse to me than nails on a chalkboard.

    1. I believe in free speech, but I’m also handsome.

      1. Dear god. That’s worse than following it with all the exceptions you would institute against actual freedom of speech.

    2. Psh! I just zone out and insert “but I’m a fucking retard” as what I heard. Makes my day better.

    3. As previously noted, everything that precedes the word “but” is bullshit.

      1. This is probably why I just start most of my sentences with “but…”

        1. but thats a stupid thing to do!

      2. It’s the same old crap we see with anti-2A people.

        “I support the 2nd Amendment, but I think we should also have reasonable compromises like waiting periods, one-gun-a-month laws, “assault” weapon bans, banning handguns altogether, registration of both firearms and owners to be revoked at the state’s discretion, 10-round mag limits, 50% ammo taxes, bans on “armor-piercing” ammo, severely limiting the import of foreign guns, bans on inexpensive “Saturday-night special” guns, prohibitions on private sales, bans on gun stores within 1000 feet of a school, a USSR-like interrogation process for concealed carry permits, safe storage laws, bans on open carry, limiting the number of gun ranges in a given area, mandatory “smart-gun” technology, mandatory microstamping, limiting handgun purchases to those on a small list of state-approved models, confiscating guns from anyone subject to a restraining order, confiscating guns from anyone with the slighest hint of mental problems, and confiscating guns on hearsay.”

        Sorry to get off subject there. But we gun owners are all mentally deranged, don’cha know.

    4. “I believe in free speech, but…”

      No you don’t.

  8. The European Court of Human Rights has defined hate speech as “all form of expressions which spread, incite, promote, or justify hatred based on intolerance (including religious intolerance).” This completely turns the concept of tolerance on its head.

    Or the concept of rights on its head. All of a sudden, everybody has a responsibility not to hurt someone’s feelings, which is nothing more than succumbing to people’s infantilism.

    1. I only wish I could personally inform the European Court of Human Rights to collectively go fuck themselves.

    2. The very concept of ‘hate speech’ undermines application of ‘free speech.’ The concepts cannot ‘equally’ exist, thus short-circuiting the prog brain.

    3. Being offensive can prevent dialogure. Saying “your beliefs are a bunch of fairy tales” doesn’t really give the other side much incentive to respond in any meaningfull way.

      However, once you have been through the arguments with believers a hundred times, it is really hard to see any point in going through them for the hundred and first time and it is easier just to dismiss them.

      1. dialogue isnt the only aim of speech. Ive rarely engaged in dialogue with the authors of the books I have read (many of them are dead, anyway). Yet, those books have shaped a great deal of how I see the world. More specifically, polemic and satire have a very long and important history in the world of ideas. Some of the best and most effective of such works could be boiled down to statements like the one you described about fairy tales. Jonathan Swifts works would be unlikely to bring about reasonable dialogue. Perhaps when you are trying to convince people to abandon irrational beliefs reasonable dialogue is inappropriate.

  9. In America, the chief weapon used against free speech is to try to hound employers into firing the offender.

    “Nobody’s free speech rights are being infringed, because the government isn’t doing it!” They smugly proclaim.

    Well, yes. Cretins. Infringing someone’s free speech isn’t wrong because it’s unconstitutional. It’s unconstitutional because it’s wrong.

    So, yeah, go on your witch hunts. Just understand that you’re using your freedoms to engage in evil when you persecute people and try to destroy their livelihoods because they say things you don’t like.

    1. This is a concept that goes back to the origin of Christianity, at least. Paul in I Corinthians 6:12: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable.”

      Translation: just because it’s not against the law (whether of God or secular law), doesn’t mean it’s a good idea, *ssh*l*.

      1. *ssh*l*

        You just self-censored. You can type asshole here, Clobu.

        1. I’m so used to not being able to. Can I type nigger?

          1. Can I type nigger?

            OMG OMG OMG!!1!1!eleventy-one
            *grabs paper bag, runs to fainting couch*

          2. Well, now… cracker be gettin’ feisty.

            1. “Saltine-American.”

          3. Can I type nigger?

            Sure, I guess so – just don’t type anything about diddling sheep or we could lose the whole thread.

            1. You just can’t type it in certain neighborhoods.

  10. Most important? Maybe but there is overlap in the Venn diagram.
    Which is more important? My ability to say what I want or my ability to use my property ,such as a printing press, in a way I see fit. Or a weapon to protect both?

    1. Not all things fit neatly into heirarchical prioties. All the legs of a table are equally important.

    2. I’d argue that without the power to convey your idea, your right to own property would soon be revoked.

      1. Case in point: China.

        1. I’m arguing that without the right to own property the power to convey your idea will be limited at best and revoked at worst. As cloudbuster noted. These rights work together.

          1. The point is that owning property and free speech aren’t granted rights; they’re natural. They exist because you exist, and can only be suppressed (not revoked, poor word choice on my part) if you let them.

            Without freedom of speech, you have no way to band with others to protect those rights, because you can’t legally communicate with them. This makes it easier for the State to take whatever action it deems necessary, and to keep the citizens of that state oppressed, for pretty “FYTW” as the reasoning.

    3. I think you have to ask “imposrtant to what?”. There is no cosmic hierarchy of important rights. They are all important in different ways.

      I tend to think that property rights and economic freedom are the most important when it comes to improving life for people. Too much restriction of other rights will ruin those rights, but places like Singapore or Hongkong are examples of places where speech (less so in HK) and some other rights are less than absolute, but where economic freedom has done a tremendous amount of good for people.

      On principle, I think all natural rights are equally important. But from a more utilitarian perspective, they are all useful in different ways.

  11. When the culture invents a right not to be offended (at least for members of politically correct groups, such as Muslims), free speech is no longer of value to them. This is very convenient for those who seek to criminalize dissent, or at minimum intimidate dissenters.

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    1. “We make profit on the Internet since 1998!”

      But have not learned English language very good in all that time!

      1. Many an Indian speaks .js better than English.

      2. Notice he says “we” make profit. As in they. Says nothing about you profiting!

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  14. Where is Chapman (or was it Richman) to tell me about my chances of getting blown up by a terrorist bomb? I dare them to ask Fleming Rose that question.

  15. Apropos to this thread – perhaps the heckler’s veto is somewhat better than that of the hackers


    1. The dress was blue with a presidential white stain on it. Incidentally, I thought either Lewinsky or Clinton could have come out with a salad topping called Blue Dress Cheesing

  17. The right to offend exists in nature and is inalienable but requires the honor and bravery to die if death was the known penalty for the offensive free speech used. The right to murder due to offensive free speech exists just as firmly in nature but requires the honor and bravery to accept the results of this crime as well. The killers of the brave, proud, offensive cartoonists at “Char. Heb.” have answered already for their dishonorable actions. So have the cartoonists. The real end results are not known and will never be.

    Natural law does not allow any action without a corresponding reaction or any right without a responsibility including speech.

    Humans have the right to offend but must often then die as a result. None can stop either dishonorable act or choose which is more dishonorable.

    1. The phrase right to murder is a contradiction in terms.

    2. You know that Natural Rights arent just Things That Happen, right?

    3. Oh, fuck you asshole.

  18. And right next door, we have pretty strong evidence concerning the left’s commitment to free speech:
    “Congressional Democrats Climate Change Investigation: Witchhunt or McCarthyism?”

  19. isnt gay marriage freedom of speach in a way…or how about just freedom

    1. Feeding trolls is too, but we don’t do it.

    2. No. Because marriage is being subserviant to the government. Register to get married. Pay the fee. Sign the forms.

    3. Are you a goddamn retard? “Speach”? Fuck you.

  20. Flemming Rose is not immune to the self censorship he denounces in his book.

    He refused to reprint the Charlie Hebdo cartoons in Jyllands Posten for “security reasons.”

    1. The perfect is the enemy of the very very good in this case.

      And why no HT? I posted this a week ago.

  21. Want to see free speech and it’s supporters evaporate quickly ?
    three words

    Westboro Baptist Church

    I’ve got say I found myself the only one not going into an insane war mode condemning the above and demanding incarceration and death after public torture, with of course total and absolute restriction of their free speech.

    Suddenly the wonderful rule of freedom evaporated. I also discovered there was an entourage of “freedom fighters” who ganged up and followed the WBC to their next protest site to harass them, buzz them with vehicles and loud Harleys, and deny them speech.

    It was quite enlightening, seeing the “preachers” (of the 1st) totally losing it.

  22. I’m tremendously offended that miss hyphenated-snowflake got probation instead of thirty days behind bars, so if I ever meet her and slap her upside the head, it’s her fault.

    Whee! This is fun!


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  25. Great article. They say “Freedom of speech is not the same as the freedom to offend”, but in fact they are precisely the same. It is precisely WHEN people disagree most passionately that the ability to speak freely is most needed. Anyone who claims to support free speech except when it’s offensive does not really support it at all.

  26. If you think about it, the right to offend ought to extend to victimless and consensual lifestyle choices, like drug use, prostitution, porn, gambling, etc. The right to offend is another word for “freedom”.

    As long as someone is not infringing on someone else’s rights, then that person should be free to live his or her life as he or she pleases, without worry of prosecution by some intolerant f—ker who is happy to use the power of the state to suppress a different value system.

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