Free speech isn’t just for you

Jeremy Clarkson has upset people. Nothing new there. Commenting on the strikes on November the 30th, he said:

“I would have them all shot. I would take them outside and execute them in front of their families. I mean how dare they go on strike when they have these gilt-edged pensions that are going to be guaranteed, while the rest of us have to work for a living.”

Later (not in the clip below) he said: “‘I do sometimes use the train to come to London but it always stops in Reading. It’s always because somebody has jumped in front of it and somebody has burst. You just think, why have we stopped because we’ve hit somebody? What’s the point of stopping? It won’t make them better.”

 

So here’s what I think of what he said. First of all, it is clear to me that the comment about shooting people is not his serious opinion. It is hyperbole. This is just how Clarkson is, he says stupid things that he doesn’t mean to make some people laugh and make other people outraged. To me, it’s not funny, to some unpleasant people, it is. His comment about “gilt-edged pensions” is plain wrong. Public sector pensions are not gilt-edged, gold-plated or any other phrase that implies that they provide enough to live on.

1.11 The Commission firmly rejected the claim that current public service pensions are ‘gold plated.’ The average pension paid to pensioner members is around £7,800 per year, while the median payment is around £5,600.

From Page 26 of the Hutton Report [PDF]

Clarkson is also a hypocrite for calling pensions gilt-edged and claiming that “the rest of us have to work for a living.” I don’t know what his pension is like, but he definitely earns above the average wage – including approximately £1 million per year from the BBC. And I am fairly sure that he doesn’t work as hard as the average teacher, nurse or other public sector worker. As for his comments about people who fall under trains inconveniencing him, that just shows how detached and insensitive he is.

Last week another example of offensive speech made the news. A woman on a tram let out a tirade of racist speech, argument and abuse, and it was all captured on video. That video caused enough outrage to be viewed over 7.5 million times on YouTube. Since that incident the woman has been arrested and charged with racially/religiously aggravated intentional harassment.

Following his comments, Unison said today that they are considering reporting Clarkson to the police for hate speech. What Clarkson said was offensive and vile in my opinion but for all that I disagree with him, I cannot agree with those who say that he should be prosecuted or sued for what he said. I believe that freedom to say what we want is absolutely essential. Article 9 of the European Convention of Human Rights give us the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion – to think what we want. Article 10 gives us the right to Freedom of Expression – to say what we want. Those are rights. They are not supposed to be negotiable; we must be allowed to think whatever we want and to speak our opinions. People who say things that are popular don’t need those rights enshrined in law because nobody will try to stop them from speaking. It is people who say things that are not popular that need the protection of those rights. And it isn’t just the freedom to say something hurtful or hateful, it is also the freedom to criticise those in power and to protest against government policy. It is very hard if not impossible to clamp down on any expression without providing excuses to clamp down on all expression.

That isn’t to say that there is no way to avoid what people say. We don’t have a right not to be offended by what someone says, but we do have a right not to listen. If offensive comments are left on a private blog or website, I see no reason why they can’t be removed. That’s not censorship, that is refusing to listen. The person who left the comments is free to get their own blog to say what they want. In the case of the woman on the tram, I think if she is found guilty of harassment then that is probably fair – but that is not for what she said but for who she said it to and how she said it. I think it would have been quite reasonable for the driver to ask her to leave the vehicle so that the other passengers did not need to be exposed to what she was saying. In the case of Jeremy Clarkson many people don’t want to hear what he says and don’t want to pay him to say it. I think it is fair for people who pay the BBC license fee to demand that the BBC not pay those fees to Clarkson as a salary for saying offensive things, and quite fair for the BBC to sack him. I don’t think that will happen though. I certainly don’t think that he should be prosecuted for hate speech. I’m also not saying that such offensive speech cannot be opposed. I think it is right to speak out against such opinions and there is nothing to stop other people criticising what was said. It is common for campaigns by the BNP and rallies by the EDL to be opposed by counter-protests by people who feel that they cannot let such political views go unopposed.

Where is the line as to what people can say, then? I agree that there must be a line. I think this because at some point a person using their right to say what they want can cross into abusing other people’s rights. In the case of freedom of speech I do not think that the line should be drawn to prevent offence, but should be drawn at the point where it becomes a threat to other people. I think the charge of harassment for the racist lady on the tram is probably the right charge. I would have disagreed with the charge if it had been hate speech.

This is a difficult problem though. A few months ago Kaliya Franklin (Bendy Girl) had comments left on her YouTube videos that advocated that she be killed because she is disabled. The comments were threatening and a horrible experience for her, and she reported them to the police. I don’t doubt that the comments were a crime under the rules about hate speech. The question is, should they be? I wouldn’t want to allow such comments but at the same time I believe that people should be free to think such things if they are that nasty. I don’t have an answer to this problem.

In the end I think the laws that we have on hate speech are unnecessary. When hate speech becomes threats or harassment it is covered by other laws.

 

Links

My Tram Experience [YouTube]

Jeremy Clarkson: ‘execute’ public sector workers, says BBC Top Gear host [Telegraph]

Sack Jeremy Clarkson over strike comments, Unison urges [BBC]

How rich is controversial Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson? [This is money]