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You Can’t Say That!

Is free speech being curtailed through fear of controversy?

7:30pm, Tuesday 1 April 2008, Galsworthy Building, Kingston University, Penrhyn Road, Kingston upon Thames KT1 2EE

The days of obscenity trials and overt political censorship may be long gone, but do we truly have freedom of expression in Britain today? From BBC Radio One’s bleeping of ‘slag’ and ‘faggot’ from the Pogues’ 1987 Christmas hit Fairytale of New York “because some members of the audience might find it offensive” to Home Secretary Jacqui Smith’s new clamp down on websites that allegedly groom susceptible people for extremism and terrorism, and from the conviction of ‘Lyrical Terrorist’ Samina Malik for gathering jihadist literature to the closing down of debate on campuses through no platform policies, many people feel unable to speak freely for fear of causing controversy.

While many are against censorship per se, what happens when ‘speech’ is seen to incite violence? Recently Brighton and Hove Council, with cross party support, became the first British city to ‘ban’ “the playing of what’s loosely termed murder music”, associated with Jamaican dance-hall reggae artists, who stand accused of inciting the murder of gays and lesbians through their homophobic lyrics. Laws against the incitement of racial and religious hatred are similarly justified as protecting people from violence.

But is it dangerous to place such conditions on free speech? As American Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once remarked, ‘every idea is an incitement’. If we conclude that listeners of hateful speech are so easily incited, what does this say about our views of ordinary people’s ability to make decisions and act as autonomous citizens? Or is the demand for unlimited free speech a green light for insult, prejudice and verbal assaults on the vulnerable? Where should we draw the line?


Peter Tatchell: Campaigner for human rights, Green Party parliamentary candidate for Oxford East and a founder and member of the queer human rights group OutRage!
Jonathan Heawood: Director, English PEN,; former editor, Fabian Review and Deputy Literary Editor of the Observer.
Maria Grasso: doctoral student in political sociology at Nuffield College, Oxford University; co-convenor, Postgraduate Forum; academic freedom campaigner
Dolan Cummings: Research and Editorial Director, IoI; editor of reviews website, Culture Wars; organiser, Thoughtcrime Is Not Crime

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