Monday, 17 March 2014


When you protect people from having their feelings hurt, you must necessarily end freedom of speech. Anything and everything can be punished.

North American universities have become famous for their all-inclusive speech codes.  Drexel University's harassment policy banned "inconsiderate jokes" and "inappropriately directed laughter."   Johns Hopkins University prohibits any “rude, disrespectful behavior”.  At Colorado State you are not allowed to tell a joke that makes fun of someone for some reason such as an inability to spell.  University of Connecticut also outlawed “inappropriately directed laughter” and adds a ban on “conspicuous exclusion of students from conversation”. At Tufts University a student newspaper was found guilty of harassment in 2007 for printing violent passages from the Quran and facts about the status of women in Saudi Arabia.   Northeastern University did all the other speech codes one better by prohibiting sending any e-mail message “which in the sole judgment of the University is offensive”.

In other words the “right not to be offended” has increasingly made vigorous debate practically impossible. It is no longer permitted to say anything meaningful since someone or some group may take offence or claim victim status.  If someone’s feelings can be hurt by something that is said, a campus equity office comes to the fore, armed with the right to force sensitivity training on the speaker backed up by the right to suspend or expel anyone who resists being sent to reeducation camp.

The mentality of the university is spreading into the public realm.  Take Nova Scotia’s Cyber-safety Act.  It defines cyberbullying as any electronic communication through the use of technology including, without limiting the generality of the foregoing, computers, other electronic devices, social net-works, text messaging, instant messaging, websites and electronic mail, typically repeated or with continuing effect, that is intended or ought reasonably [to] be expected to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, distress or other damage or harm to another person’s health, emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation, and includes assisting or encouraging such communication in any way“.

Cyberbullying at its broadest reach thusly “means any electronic communication ... that ... ought reasonably [to] be expected to cause ..... distress or other damage or harm to another person’s .... emotional well-being, self-esteem or reputation.”  It could cover a phone call - even a phone call initiated by a so-called victim.  For example you receive an unsolicited phone call from a Christian evangelist.  You react by harshly criticizing religion and denying the existence of God.  You say that Jesus Christ never existed or if he did he was a quack.  You state that Christianity is a force of evil.  Or you say all these types of things in an unsolicited call from a Muslim.  You ought reasonably have expected that the expression of your opinion will cause distress to the phone caller’s emotional well-being.  

Similarly virtually any vigorous criticism of a politician or other public figure that is made in an electronic communication could reasonably be expected to cause damage or harm to that person’s well-being, self-esteem or reputation.  The application for the protection order concerning such can even be submitted “by telephone or other means of telecommunication, by a lawyer, a police officer or a person designated by the regulations for this purpose, with the applicant’s consent”.

Self designated moral guardians are already zealously policing public space and debate forcing targets to back down or apologize for offending communications.  Often it is a handful of individuals who initiate the policing.  For example in 2004, the UK Office of Communications (Ofcom) upheld the complaints of three people who had taken offence to Somerfield supermarket’s advert for a meat dish which included the use of the word ‘faggot’, on the grounds that the word is also derogatory slang for a homosexual.  The English online publication “Spiked” recently reported on a similar row over a West Midlands pub selling something called ‘The Michael Barrymore Pie: Faggots Swimming in Gravy”. 

It is a new form of minority censorship where each citizen is deputized as a gatekeeper of inoffensiveness. Every individual is turned into a potential citizen spy.  The online English publication, Spike reported about a couple of police officers who complained about an advertisement for a Wearside law firm. “The promotional poster advertised the fact that everyone who is taken to a police station is entitled to free legal advice. It was placed opposite the main police station in Sunderland and showed an attractive woman dressed as a sexy policewoman waving handcuffs under the words: ‘It’s a fair cop! (but it might not be)….so let [our solicitors] advise, assist and defend you.’ Following the police officers’ complaints the advertisement was promptly quashed.

In a culture of inoffensiveness, the idea that ‘You can’t say something that might hurt someone’s feelings, results in a censorship by a small number of people claiming to have felt offended.  As stated by Alex Hochuli in Spiked “Once society accepts that it is legitimate to protect individuals or groups from the subjective category of ‘offensive’ speech or expression, then that gives carte blanche to individuals everywhere to demand the removal of things they don’t like.”  Hochuli correctly notes “The consequence is an unmistakable narrowing of what is acceptable and unacceptable speech, and the spread of both formal and informal speech codes.”  People will avoid saying anything that could possibly be taken as offensive by anybody.  They will self censor their humour, their controversial statements, their hearty opinions.  Free speech is at an end.

1 comment:

  1. Freedom of speech does not mean freedom from repercussions. I have the right to call you an asshole when you spread misogyny, racism, and rape culture under the veil of a "joke" or "sarcasm". Keep you hate-filled speech to yourself if you don't want to face the social repercussions of being an asshole.