Freedom of expression

Freedom of expression gives one the right to insult?

voted YES
voted NO

About this debate:

According to Article 19 of the United Nations Human Rights Declaration (1948), ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression’. However, much has changed since 1948 and many ambiguities exist when it comes to right of free expression within borders of a specific state. Whether it be Russia or United States, North Korea or South Korea, Arab States, South Asia or the European Union, every nation has its own set of laws which establishes their own take on freedom of expression. For example, freedom of expression in the United States is protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, however there are some limitations or restrictions that are recognized by the Supreme Court of United States. Signed shortly after the UN Human Rights Declaration, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (1950) states that ‘everyone has the right to freedom of expression’, however it too lays out some limitations which are ‘necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder of crime, for the protection of health and morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others’ amongst other things. And then there is Article 22 of Cairo Declaration of Human Rights in Islam, which was signed by the member states of Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which entitles everyone the right to express their ‘opinion freely in such manner as would not be contrary to the principles of the Shari’ah’ or in ‘such a way as may violate sanctities and the dignity of Holy Prophets’.

Having three of the most authentic declarations and many other state laws, the debate about freedom of expression is far from decided. Specially, when controversial events keep taking place such as Charlie Hebdo, burning of cross incidents in the United States, anti-Jewish chants at a football game in Netherlands, or simply insulting others by racist remarks, amongst many others. The implications and consequences of these incidents, and the fact they do not just affect any one particular community, gives this debate an international dimension without restricting it to one community or region. With such undecided elements of the right to freedom of expression, this debate invites all the people around the world to participate through votes and comments in order to voice their opinion and decide whether freedom of expression gives one the right to insult or not?

Voting in 20 days

Debaters' latest statements


Defending the

Ms. Hilary Stauffer

Visiting Fellow at Centre for the Study of Human Rights, LSE - UK


Against the

Dr. Jameson W. Doig

Professor Emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University - USA

At the time of my writing these closing remarks, my defense of the motion is losing—badly. Only 18% of people agree with my position, with more than 80% roundly disagreeing. It seems that the majority of those participating in this debate do not find my arguments at all persuasive.

I am, of course, disappointed, but I’m gratified to see the high level of passionate discourse this topic is provoking. If people disagree with me, that’s OK. At least they are taking the time to respond and engage, and maybe over the long term, they’ll start to consider the issue from a different angle…or, maybe not. 

Dr. Doig, Ms. Booth and some of the commenters have all noted that the principle... Read more

This has been, I believe, an excellent exchange of views on the problem of insulting speech and hateful expression generally. In my closing statement, I want to direct attention in particular to Hilary Stauffer’s thoughtful Rebuttal remarks and the insightful comments of Lauren Booth, and as space permits I will refer to the interesting observations of readers who have joined in the debate.

In her rebuttal, Hilary Stauffer points out, correctly in my view, that “rude and abusive people” may be “truth-tellers” who help society challenge “superstitious or outdated thinking.” She then seems to defend the value of rap lyrics that “demean and objectify women” as well as “inaccurate stereotypes... Read more

Guests' latest statements



Dr. Brian Klug

Senior Research Fellow & Tutor in Philosophy at Oxford University - UK

Both the opening statements in this debate refer to the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris: “the elephant in the room”, as Ms Stauffer rightly says. I shall begin by referring to this ‘elephant’.

A few days after the massacre, Francois Picard, a journalist with the television channel France 24, tweeted a photo. The photo shows a man at a demo in Paris holding up a large home-made placard which says (en Français): “I’m marching but I’m conscious of the confusion and hypocrisy of the situation.” I love this image. The message is refreshingly honest. It is thoughtful. It finds a place for irony in the midst of horror. It sees complexity where others are being simple-minded.... Read more



Prof. Geoffrey R. Stone

Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law at The University of Chicago - USA

Clearly, hate speech hurts people. It hurts their feelings, it makes them less likely to speak out, and it causes discrimination. But all speech causes harm. When I call on a student in class and demonstrate that he doesn't understand the material, I hurt his feelings, make him less likely to speak out, and cause other students to think less well of him. When a social scientist publishes data that show that African-Americans commit a disproportionate percentage of violent crimes per capita, the information has all sorts of harmful effects. If the freedom of speech is to have any substance, speech cannot be subject to restriction merely because it causes harm. That was the lesson we learned... Read more



Ms. Lauren Booth

Journalist, Broadcaster and Human Rights Activist - UK

Firstly, let me say how much I am enjoying this fascinating debate. From the opening remarks to the rebuttals and the viewer comments, so much has been covered and in such a beautiful, comprehensive way.

So, here’s where I come from on this. 
Growing up in London in the 1970’s, like all kids, I heard slang names for people of virtually every race and culture to English. This was the era when mainstream TV sitcom scripts were sprinkled with everyday terms like ‘wog,’ ‘coon’ and ‘darky.’ Back then, the argument to keep these clearly insulting words in general use was that it was only ‘in fun’. The ‘don’t take yourself too seriously’ get out clause of the knowing and unknowing racist.

Now,... Read more

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