There aren’t many things that matter more than freedom of speech. Language is the most remarkable of all the wonders of evolution and our free use of it is sacred.
Constraints on freedom of speech should always be few: laws to prevent the damage that libel and slander can do, laws to protect privacy when there’s no public interest in the revelation of private facts, laws to protect some very few official secrets, perhaps laws against incitement to, or the teaching of, racism (if there remains in a particular society a serious danger that racism might take hold) but I can’t think of many more.
We should all be free to offend each other. If someone is inclined to say that the English are puny, that the Pope is mad, that the President is stupid, that the Queen is a tart, that the Prime Minister is a hypocrite, that Catholicism is barmy, or that Islam is inflexible, then I am happy to let them do it. Some of these targets may have reason to initiate legal action, but none may reach for a Kalashnikov.
It is fashionable to quote Voltaire (in fact, incorrectly, since the quotation is a summary by someone else of what she supposed Voltaire’s attitude to be), and supposing for the moment that he said it or wrote it, he was right (and brave) to say that ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
Sadly a number of brave journalists and cartoonists in Paris have done exactly that this week, and have lost their lives, along with others attempting to protect them. We must admire them and have no truck with censorship.