Loose lips: When does free speech become hate speech?


A dialogue between James Ross and Ben Howarth: Part II

By James Clark Ross

Following on from the debate on free expression in pop culture last time round, Ben and I locked horns on a different matter altogether: the perceived discrimination of religious groups.

The debate was ignited by the rants of the relentless Professor Paul Weller of Derby University, whose obsessive and adamant insistence of discrimination against Christians irked us both. He claims that “A lack of basic religion or belief literacy perpetuates a status quo where not enough is known about these religions”.

Contrary to Waller’s claims, I would say that, as a society, we are extremely lenient when it comes to religious privilege. Not to mention that Prof Weller is arrogant enough to think that everyone should consider his private religious beliefs. Nonetheless, lawsuits dealing with deemed discrimination against religious groups have made the news this year (see below).


Nadia Eweida was told by British Airways that she had to wear her Christian necklace discreetly, in line with the company’s uniform policy. But, according to the European Court of Human Rights, Ewieda was in fact discriminated since her “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” was impeded. Three separate, but similar, claims of discrimination were, however, rejected.

Cases of religious privilege, I would say, are prevalent. For instance, last year Bishops of the Church of England maintained the right to be undemocratically gifted seats into the House of Lords.

Meanwhile, Michael Gove’s free-schools and academies can discriminate up to 50% of their intake, solely based on an innocent child’s religious convictions. We also see children of no faith, or of different faiths, such as Islam, left with no choice but to attend schools of one religion only, such as Judaism, which can only be divisive if we consider the multicultural society we live in. The list, of course, doesn’t end there. I will spare you any more of my ranting though, and trust that you at least appreciate my stance.

I feel that nobody should enjoy political privileges. That’s hardly a groundbreaking opinion, but tell that to Prof Weller, or Eric Pickles MP. The latter boasts that the government is proud to “do God” (strictly the Christian one) and ardently opposes a potential ally in the “intolerance of aggressive secularism”.


Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles MP, is an outspoken Christian.

Back to the debate. Ben (BH) and I (JR) entered a discussion regarding Prof Weller’s comments.

BH: “Weller needs to stop trying to think for people by trying to restrict attitudes that oppose his views. More to the point, why do I have to consider other people when it comes to what I feel or say? I’m not responsible for anyone but me.”

JR: “He does need to mature and stop being so self-obsessive. However, in the defence of limiting speech, remember that discussion we had about the banning of anti-gay Christian bus ads in London? Both homosexual and Christian groups found each others’ adverts ‘highly offensive’, but more importantly there was an underlying issue in that one can use free speech to spread an ideology that hate-mongers — one that does so with no evidence.”


The Christian group’s proposed slogan in response to the Stonewall advert (pictured) read: ‘NOT GAY! EX-GAY, POST-GAY AND PROUD. GET OVER IT!’, in the hope that it protected those who choose not to be gay. However, Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, stepped in to ban the proposal.

BH: “Well, it’s probably irresponsible of them to spread it, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to — though of course I would never support such statements. I consider it irresponsible for people not to educate themselves better on the subject. Look, if you want to have all the positives that come hand-in-hand with free speech, e.g. cutting edge comedy and music, then you have to be prepared to let someone say something horrible.”

JR: “Okay. Let me propose a hypothetical situation. Should I be allowed to spread the following statement on buses and billboards? ‘Adam Sandler is a stupid Jew.”


Sandler was arbitrarily chosen, but factually speaking he is a Jew.

BH: “If that is your opinion, then yes.”

JR: “Fair enough. Aside from that then, what do you think about age restrictions on films, no sexual themes on TV before 9, etc.?”

BH: “That’s a long conversation. I think organisations like BBFC, MPAA and FCC shouldn’t intervene in general. Nothing should be as far-reaching as altering the plots of films, for example. But I see the value of guidelines.”

JR: “I struggle to see the consistency in the logic there.

“Who are you protecting with those guidelines?”

BH: “I see the value of having guidelines with regards to telling an audience a little bit about the film they’re going to see. They’re useful for a parent to gauge whether or not a film is appropriate for their young child or not. But those guidelines shouldn’t change anything about the film.

JR: “But there are so many situations where a mere statement can be dangerous. Last time I used Justin Bieber’s Mum, Pattie Mallette, pushing her pro-life agenda onto young girls as an example; what about something more malicious like verbally attacking minorities? Sure, it’s hard to legislate against Mallette publically declaring her views, but what about protecting these minorities — not just ethnical minorities, but also groups such as Goths – that become psychologically scarred from being ostracised and aggressively bullied?”


Sophie Lancaster was murdered in 2007 for being different: Lancaster and her partner were members of a gothic subculture. Does hate speech incite attitudes against minorities, or are cases like this a result of an individual’s cruel and mindless thuggery?

BH: “Bullying is going to happen no matter what. It’s up to the adults, not the authorities, to teach their kids the right attitudes. Restricting speech just seems so primitive. Limiting language doesn’t actually solve anything. Banning the word ‘nigger’ doesn’t end racism, for instance.”

JR: “I agree that it’s not the word per se. I think it’s the intent behind bullying that makes it such a cruel act. In other words, it’s one thing to describe what a ‘nigger’ supposedly denotes; it’s another to use it as an insult. The intent provokes negative emotions, hence why bullying is always restricted where possible. Nevertheless, that shouldn’t prevent me from criticising something.

“To turn the debate on its head, I should be able to criticise religious establishments without Prof Waller snivelling in response to people being naive about religion.”

When does free-speech become hate-speech? I think vulnerable people need to be protected from verbal abuse and unsubstantiated claims. On the other hand, Ben feels as though free-speech should always be prioritised, and only sees a danger when people act on their words.

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