Offensive intolerance: Free speech and the right to offend

The following was written by Indian Charter Teams member Deeksha Gehlot.

Free speech and expression  is largely understood to mean arbitrary use of this right for wrongful purposes. With this in mind, law

Free speech is a natural right that every individual should enjoy.

makers decided to put certain legal restrictions upon this natural individual right. ‘Natural’ because man is a social animal which makes social interaction an indispensable aspect of its existence. ‘Individual’ because to express or not to express a word is the final choice of one person.

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘offend’ as ‘cause to feel upset, annoyed or resentful’. With respect to speech or expression, giving no right to offend would mean to give no right to cause the other to ‘feel’ upset, annoyed or resentful. However, different people ‘feel’ different about different situations. If the same expression is made to ten different individuals, there is little or no possibility that any of the two reactions would be exactly the same. While one person might be offended by a simple statement like ‘Don’t act stupid’ but the other one does not.

There is no denial of the fact that every individual is different and unique. Everyone has had different sets of social interactions throughout their lives. Even twins are not bound to react in the same way to the same situation. Life experiences and social interactions are one of the major reasons for one particular kind of human behavior over another. With so much diversity, it is nearly impossible for two individuals to have exactly the same experiences throughout their lives. Thus, being or not being offended is dependent mainly on the receiver and not on the communicator.

At this crucial point it is necessary to distinguish between an ‘offensive speech’ and a ‘libelous speech’. Neither are they inclusive concepts, nor overlapping. They are two completely distinct concepts. A very necessary element of a libel is the ‘intention to harm reputation’ of the other. This is not the case with offensive speech. Speech or expression considered to be offensive becomes offensive only when the person it is addressed to objects to it. However, a libelous speech remains libelous irrespective of what the receiver thinks or feels about it. A libelous speech is bound to harm the reputation of another person while an offensive speech harms the reputation of the other person only when the speech so made reveals a truth.

Free speech should not be restricted, unless it is libelous.

If individuals are protected from feeling offended, it is bound to increase intolerance. Intolerance simply means not to be able to tolerate a different perspective or point of view, be it on religion, caste, economics, polity or what so ever. Intolerance among different communities in its extreme form leads to communal riots and thus disrupts the peace of any society. This is not desired for by anyone.

On the other hand, if freedom of speech and expression includes the right to offend the sentiments of certain sections of the society then people will know that there exist ideas beyond what they believe in. This will develop tolerance which is necessary for maintenance of peace and harmony in a given society.

Thus, freedom of speech and expression must include the right to offend certain sections of the society not because receiver is offended but because receiver has to be made aware of countering viewpoints and ideas.