Free speech: is there a right to be offensive?

Tuesday 11 October, 19.00 - 20.30 , Kino Tilsiter Lichtspiele, Richard-Sorge-Str. 25A, 10249, Berlin Battle of Ideas Europe

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Earlier this year, an abusive poem written by German satirist Jan Boehmermann raised the question of how far free speech should be allowed to go. Boehmermann’s pending criminal prosecution for insulting a foreign head of state was widely criticised as a violation of his right to free speech. Nevertheless, when the leader of the German anti-Islam movement, Lutz Bachmann, was convicted of inciting racial hatred, just weeks after the Boehmermann scandal, few but his supporters protested. Most commentators felt that his outrageous Facebook posts, in which he called foreigners ‘cattle’, ‘scumbags’ and ‘filth’ had clearly overstepped the line.

Though the German constitution (Grundgesetz) guarantees freedom of the press, speech and opinion, there are countless exceptions, as these examples show. Particularly in the struggle against far right groups (such as Pegida), limiting free speech is seen as a necessity. Verbal attacks, such as Bachmann’s, it is argued, are a form of violence, and society has an obligation to protect vulnerable minorities. The propagation of hate speech on social media is seen as being directly, or indirectly, responsible for other, physical attacks (such as attacks against refugee shelters). Many warn that Germany’s own past shows the dangers of hateful propaganda. Freedom of speech, they argue, comes with responsibility, and offensive language has no place in a civilised society. Journalist and jurist Christian Bommarius writes that while everyone should be allowed to say what he or she wants, this does not mean that everything that is said should go unpunished.

Are there words or ideas that are so abhorrent they must be eliminated from public life? And how does the stifling of free expression affect our ability to challenge the ideas which often underlie these expressions? Who is to decide which type of speech is offensive (eg, is the difference between Boehmermann’s poem, which offended many Turkish citizens, and Bachmann`s rants really as clear cut, as many say?). Is the desire to eradicate hurtful and abusive terms from society becoming a dangerous form of censorship, or are people finally challenging the ‘soft’, previously acceptable forms of everyday prejudice?