You can’t say that! Free speech in an age of offence

Tuesday 4 November, 19.00 until 20.30, Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Rd, London EC1R 3GA UK Satellite Events 2014

Tickets £5/£3 concessions (available via Free Word Centre)

Arguments over the use of offensive language by public figures are never far from the headlines. Online debates on issues such as feminism and gender have become notorious for their heated nature, with all sides quick to “call out” each other for perceived examples of ‘oppressive’ speech. At university campuses NUS No Platform policies have recently been extended from specific political groups to individuals and even pop songs accused of using discriminatory language. Meanwhile, some public figures – such as football executive Richard Scudamore and manager Malky Mackay – have recently become embroiled in scandals after the use of derogatory language in private communications was made public. Even usually unapologetic TV presenter Jeremy Clarkson begged for forgiveness after unbroadcast footage of him allegedly mouthing the ‘n-word’ in a nursery rhyme came to light: while deputy Labour Party leader Harriet Harman declared that the term should be unacceptable ‘in whatever context’ for BBC employees.

The rise of hate speech legislation and informal speech codes across many Western nations in recent decades is often used by supporters as evidence of a degree of consensus on the idea that language is inherently harmful and dangerous to vulnerable groups. Yet free speech activists regularly point towards examples of how such legislation can act to stifle debate, silence criticism and become ever more unfocused in its targets. In his new book That’s Racist! author Adrian Hart explores how policies intended to foster diversity in British schools frequently result in primary schoolchildren being labelled as racist for playground insults; whilst black comedian Reginald Hunter has faced criticism from white audiences for the use of the ‘n-word’ as part of his act in the past. Yet if it is acceptable for some individuals to use terms off-limits to others, who is in the position to decide when there’s dispute over a word’s offensiveness?

Are there some words or ideas that are so abhorrent they must be eliminated from public life regardless of the context? Or does such a subjective measure as offence inevitably result in the stifling of free expression and the ability to speak frankly on controversial subjects? Can legal and political institutions be trusted to arbitrate on what is acceptable in public and private? Is the desire to eradicate hurtful and abusive terms from society becoming a form of censorship or are people finally addressing the soft, acceptable forms of everyday prejudice?

Listen to the debate

A podcast is available at the Free Word Centre website.

Duleep Allirajah
sports columnist, spiked; Crystal Palace fan

Peter Bradley
director, Speakers’ Corner Trust

Jo Glanville
director, English PEN

Adrian Hart
author, That's Racist! How the regulation of speech and thought divides us all and Leave those kids alone – How official hate speech regulation interferes in school life

Jacob Mchangama
executive director, Justitia and Freedom Rights Project

David Bowden
associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

Produced by
David Bowden associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; culture writer

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