FREEDOM of speech is interesting only when you disagree with or disapprove of what is being said.

For all that the line is repeatedly attributed to him, Voltaire never in fact said that he would “defend to the death” your right to say something he disagreed with. But that sentiment ran through Enlightenment thinking and, in time, gave birth to our modern understanding of just how fundamental freedom of speech is.

Free speech means this: no one need ask the government’s permission before saying something; and no one will be punished by the government for saying anything, unless the speech causes immediate harm. The classic example is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, causing a fatal crush as people stampede to escape. No one has the right to do that.

Yet how, in these increasingly censorious times, are we losing sight of the virtues of free speech. Whether it is Rangers fans being arrested for singing the Famine Song in Glasgow. Whether it is Piers Morgan being suspended from his job for daring to challenge Harry and Meghan’s interview with Oprah Winfrey – Piers Morgan was exonerated by Ofcom last week. Or whether it is poor Tess White MSP, being made an example of by Holyrood’s new Presiding Officer, for saying something in the Chamber that was not even caught by the microphones.

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In each of these cases free speech has been side-lined – not because the speech caused any immediate harm, but because someone felt “offended”. Well, guess what? You have no right not to be offended by what I say. You have every right to disagree with what I say. But your remedy is to speak back, not to censor me.

Let me clear one thing out of the way straight away. I dislike and disapprove of the Famine Song. I would never sing it (and, yes, I am a Rangers fan). I would not have said, on TV or anywhere else, what Piers Morgan said about Meghan’s mental health. And Tess White’s heckle of the First Minister during FMQs last week was silly, as well as inaccurate. I was born and raised in England and while I have had doors closed to me in Scotland on account of that, they were doors in legal circles, not doors controlled by the SNP. Of course there are rabid England-haters in the broader Yes movement, but neither the Scottish Government nor the SNP leadership are fuelled by hatred of the English.

So all my examples of speech that ought to have been left free – and not interfered with – are of speech I disagree with.

Let us then ask why. Why should we tolerate speech in our society which we find disagreeable? It’s a perfectly legitimate question. To answer it, let me take you to Skokie, Illinois. It is a suburban village, just north of Chicago. After the Second World War it became home to a large number of Jewish families, including several Holocaust survivors. In the 1970s an American neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Party of America, held a series of rallies in Chicago.

In 1977 they wanted to move their rally to Skokie. The authorities sought to stop them. For a Holocaust survivor, just seeing the swastika being waved at such a rally is horrific, never mind hearing the venom belched through the megaphone.

At this point, up stood the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), an avowedly liberal, progressive, and activist lobby group that works to defend and advance US constitutional rights, including the First Amendment right to free speech.


Up stood the ACLU, that is, to defend the constitutional right of the Nazis to hold their peaceful demonstration in Skokie if that is what they wanted to do. Yes, the swastika is offensive – horrific, even. But if you take free speech seriously not even Nazis have to ask the government’s permission before speaking.

This is an extreme case, and it sorely tests our commitment to Voltaire’s principle. But its conclusion shows that, in the end, we would be right to adhere to that principle even on facts such as these, and that we would be wrong to give in to the impulse to censor what we find so profoundly offensive. For the conclusion was this: the Jewish community of Skokie, Illinois, founded and opened a new Holocaust Museum and Education Centre. Skokie’s Holocaust survivors had wanted to leave the past behind, but they found they could not remain silent. The Holocaust Museum and Education Centre is dedicated to combating the Nazi hatred that led to the Holocaust not by censoring it, but by educating people about the prejudice, ignorance and cold indifference that led to it. What a monument to the power of speaking back that museum is.

Returning to our lesser, more local examples, how should we apply this lesson? I would counsel against taking the words of the Famine Song literally. But if you really think that the Irish in Glasgow should go home because the famine is over, you do not need to be arrested. You need to be educated.

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Likewise Piers Morgan. I have next to zero sympathy for the utterly self-serving antics of Harry and Meghan, but the mental health and wellbeing of even such crass publicity-seekers is a sensitive matter that should be treated with care and delicacy. Ofcom were right in their verdict last week that Piers Morgan’s right to free speech needed to be protected but it is right, too, to recall that he is in a privileged position and that, as such, his broadcast words are capable of doing much harm, unless they are carefully chosen.

And so too Tess White. The First Minister’s reaction to being heckled as 'anti-English' was to claim that she was offended. Well, too bad. Being offended by what someone says is, by itself, never a sufficient harm to justify punishing them for their speech. It is, however, a very good justification for answering back, for educating, and for showing why and how the view expressed is wrong.

Education, not censorship, is the Enlightened answer to speech you find disagreeable.

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