Should offence ever be grounds for censorship? Some of the laws that regulate speech in the UK set a very low threshold for tolerating words that may distress or shock. Last year, prosecutions for offensive comments on social media resulted in jail sentences, despite Keir Starmer, former director of public prosecutions, offering guidance that such cases should very rarely reach court. We are, as a society, very confused about where to draw the line.
So when David Cameron joined the phalanx of statesman standing up for free speech, following the horrifying murders in Paris earlier this month, his public support for freedom of expression struck some advocates as a little hypocritical. This is a government that is introducing counter-terrorism legislation that threatens academic freedoms, and has rushed through emergency laws that will give intelligence agencies further powers to harvest our data without effective oversight, which should chill any of us who wish to share confidential information online.
It is writers and publishers who have the most power and licence to challenge any restraint on expression. They have, after all, been pushing the boundaries for more than 50 years, from the famous obscenity trials of the 1960s and ‘70s to “Jerry Springer: the Opera”, which prompted protests from Christian groups. The prohibition on representing Mohammed or satirising Islam has been the grounds for threats to publishers and writers now for a generation, resurfacing in occasional shocking attacks and murders ever since the publication of The Satanic Verses. It will be brave and principled writers and publishers who continue to publish books that may risk any violence: Random House US withdrew from publishing a novel about Mohammed’s wife seven years ago; the British publisher’s home was firebombed.
What we need now is solidarity, some of which was demonstrated by the mass publication of Charlie Hebdo cartoons (in which English PEN participated), and when a group of publishers came together to anonymously publish The Satanic Verses in paperback 23 years ago. If we, as a community of writers, journalists, publishers and advocates, defy censorship together, then we may even change the culture.