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University of Wisconsin–Madison
School of Journalism and Mass Communication

Freedom to Offend


In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill railed against the tyranny of majorities to silence contentious voices. Mill praised free speech in part because our fundamental beliefs crystallize into inert lumps of “dead dogma” when they are not challenged. A liberal society needs a large domain of free speech like the body needs a large supply of oxygen.

The violence that followed the publication of the cartoons of Mohammed in the Danish daily, Jyllands-Posten, was shocking. It prompted journalists to consider what a free and responsible press means in pluralistic democracies. The dispute showed that the popular phrase “a free and responsible press” may have become one of Mill’s dogmas, providing cover for troubling tensions just below the surface.

The arguments

Arguments for and against publishing and republishing the images came in two strengths – a “weak” and a “strong” version. The “weak” argument said publishers had a constitutional right to publish the images, if they so wished. The strong version was that editors “ought” to publish the images to stand up for free expression and to inform the public.

The argument for not publishing the images also had a weak and a strong version. The weak version took a middle way — publishers had a legal right to publish but they could use their discretion because it was not “necessary” to publish the images to properly cover the story. Publication of the images would be “merely provocative.” Why unnecessarily offend Muslims, especially at a time of tension? Some editors added that publishing the images would have violated their standards against publishing offensive or graphic images. The stronger version argued that to publish the images was simply an abuse of press freedom, causing harm and little good. Publishers had an ethical duty not to publish the images.

Among the journalists who argued strongly for publication was Erza Levant, publisher of The Western Standard in Calgary, who told CBC radio that his paper has the constitutional right to re-publish the cartoons because, “it’s the central fact in the largest news story of the month and we are a news magazine, I guess our readers want to know the news.” In The Globe and Mail, Margaret Wente said on March 18th that democratic values of free speech and equality had to be defended against what she called the “multicultural myth” – the idea that “difference” makes Canada a better place. However, Ian Jack in London, editor of the literary magazine Granta, called the re-publication of cartoons an unacceptable abuse of free expression. A middle way was represented by major newspapers such as The Globe and Mail and The Washington Post. “It was a choice similar to not running images of dead bodies and offensive language,” said Leonard Downie, Jr., executive editor of The Washington Post. “We described them (cartoons).” Ed Greenspon, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail, wrote that the Jyllands-Posten had the right to publish the cartoons and Muslims had the right to protest, peacefully. But re-publishing would be both a “gratuitous and unnecessarily provocation, especially given what we knew about how offended Muslims . . . felt about the cartoons.” The Globe’s policy is to publish offensive material only when “absolutely necessary to the understanding of the story.”

“Offending” responsibly?

My own view favours publication, but it falls somewhere between these arguments. Legally I defend the right of editors to publish these cartoons, for whatever reasons. A liberal democratic society needs a relatively wide area reserved for controversial and, yes, offensive speech so long as it is not hate speech. Toleration of offensive speech is a difficult but fundamental feature of an open society.

I also believe that it is ethically permissible to publish and re-publish the cartoons if published in a contextualized manner. I think you can “offend,” responsibly. I do not say that editors have a “duty” to publish the images. Too much depends on context to make such a sweeping claim. But I do think that in certain contexts, there are serious reasons to support responsibly publishing the images.

A publication would be “merely provocative” if it simply published the cartoons under a headline that read: “Take that, you Muslims!” or otherwise showed contempt. But one could publish responsibly in an informed and non-contemptuous manner. How? By explaining the reasons why some Muslims oppose the depiction and the history of that belief; by examining the social and political causes of the protests; by avoiding simplified images of Islam; by speaking with moderate Muslims; by exploring how democracies might deal fairly with such issues.

What reasons would support thoughtful re-publishing? No doubt the images would still offend. But journalists would have discharged their duty to provide a diverse forum on a major issue, without allowing fear of offending or intimidation to limit the discussion. But is it “necessary” to see the images? It is difficult to respond to this objection because what is “necessary” to a story is quite subjective. To play devil’s advocate, I suggest that people need to see these cartoons in the press for themselves, rather than have them described, or by having to turn to Google. Today, I still talk with non-Muslim people who oppose the publications or talk about them with conviction, although they have not seen the cartoons. When they do see the cartoons, they have a greater understanding about the reasonableness of various positions.

Another reason to responsibly publish the images is that a publication might feel that members of the mainstream media should stand behind the principle of free expression, against clear threats of intimidation. Flemming Rose, culture editor of the Jyllands-Posten, said he published the cartoons not to mock Muslims but to test the limits of free expression. He said that recent incidents of self-censorship in Europe have caused “widening fears and feelings of intimidation in dealing with issues related to Islam.” Now isn’t this a crucial social issue? Is this being “merely provocative”? Therefore, it is not enough to say that something is offensive. The usual rule is that publications avoid offensive material if it serves no greater purpose than to shock or titillate. But that is just the issue in the cartoon debate. One can’t assume that publishing the cartoons serves only to provoke. Furthermore, not publishing the cartoons creates the danger of a slippery slope that leads from the cartoon case to the next story that offends deeply held beliefs. I do not see how the middle-way editors can publish other culturally controversial images or stories in the future, if the only test is whether the story is offensive to devout persons.

Freedom to offend

Finally, I am concerned that this whole torturous debate indicates that some people are too ready to think that the potential of causing “offence” is a knock-down reason not to publish something. We are in danger of losing a balance between freedom and responsibility. There are responsibilities to speak out, as well as to remain silent. A love of building bridges between cultures does not entail the silencing of those who may not want to build a bridge, or do not want to speak in measured tones. Of course we should educate citizens to tolerate and respect each other. But we should also teach that in a plural society, expect to be offended. 

The right to offend trumps the right not to be offended. In light of the cartoon case, journalists need to ask not only, “What are the limits of a free press?” but also “What are the limits of social responsibility?”

DR. STEPHEN WARD, Director of Journalism Ethics for the Global Citizen, is a faculty member in the School of Journalism at the University of British Columbia. He holds a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Waterloo and has 15 years of journalism experience, including 10 years with the Canadian Press as a foreign correspondent and bureau chief.

Before becoming Vancouver bureau chief, Ward spent five years as CP’s only staff reporter in Europe. Based in London, he covered major events such as the Gulf War, the Bosnian conflict and the troubles in Northern Ireland. Before joining the journalism school, Ward was a research fellow at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. His research interests include the philosophy of journalism, media ethics and the impact of new media on journalism.

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