1. Skip to content

Our vision for a secular democracy is underpinned by the right to free speech. Without this, democracy cannot exist. We played an instrumental role in abolishing the UK's blasphemy laws, but other threats remain; not least from those who seek to impose their blasphemy taboos on others through violence and intimidation.

Without free speech no search for truth is possible; without free speech no discovery of truth is useful; without free speech progress is checked, and the nations no longer march forward towards the nobler life which the future holds for man. Better a thousand fold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech. The abuse dies in a day; the denial slays the life of the people and entombs the hope of the race.

NSS founder Charles Bradlaugh MP

Freedom of expression

Our view on freedom of expression and its importance to a secular pluralist democracy.

The National Secular Society has campaigned vigorously against all attempts to restrict free speech and artistic expression throughout its history. It played a leading role in ensuring that the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished in 2008. But the struggle did not end with that success.

While blasphemy is no longer explicitly outlawed in England and Wales, self-censorship grows stronger and stronger. This is enforced by a toxic mix of terrorism, state-sponsored violence, 'safe space' ideology on campuses and identity politics. The unjustified use of religiously-aggravated crimes and the low threshold for prosecutions also create risks to freedom of expression.

In recent years we have repeatedly drawn attention to the adherence of major media outlets, including the BBC and Channel 4, to Islamic blasphemy codes. Events have forced these issues into mainstream discussion, yet there is still significant reticence within the media to begin undoing the damage caused by the media-enforced 'taboo' of depicting certain forms of religious imagery (including satire).

In the wake of the attacks on the Paris office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015, there has been some liberalisation on this front. After similar controversies (like the Jyllands-Posten/Mohammed cartoon riots) the British media (and outlets around the world) refused to show the cartoons in question. After the Paris attacks in January 2015, this was initially repeated, before the BBC withdrew widely criticised editorial guidance which forbade the depiction of the Prophet Mohammed and it, and other press organisations, showed the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed.

We welcome this change, but remain critical of the many media outlets who refuse to publish cartoons of Mohammed on spurious grounds, or at least refuse to admit that they are not doing so out of fear. Deciding not to publish a cartoon (which is central to a news story) is not an editorially neutral decision; it reinforces the most orthodox and reactionary religious tendencies by embracing the prohibition on depicting religious figures.

Media organisations must have the liberty to publish material (or not) as they see fit. But self-censorship under the threat of violence is not an exercise of free choice.

The state should fully commit itself to defending those who decide to make use of their fundamental human rights to free expression and speech, regardless of whether individuals' substantive use of their right is seen by some as 'inflammatory' or 'provocative'. These arguments amount to blaming victims for violence directed at them. The state must defend these individuals. Instead, we have seen art exhibitions cancelled after the police made unreasonable demands for financial compensation for security. The state must incur the financial cost of defending free speech, as it does unequivocally in France.

Death threats against Salman Rushdie are widely seen as the start of the current malaise in the UK. Those responsible were allowed to go unpunished while Rushdie was castigated and vilified. This sends a signal that restricting others' freedom of expression can be carried out with impunity and that religion is off limits for debate or criticism.

Religion must not be returned to a place of special protection, where it cannot be satirised, ridiculed or criticised. This is increasingly called for under the guise of protecting 'community cohesion' or 'community relations,' and many religious figures and political leaders (including Pope Francis and former President Obama) have argued that free expression should only be exercised where it will not aggravate religious sensibilities. This argument must be rejected emphatically; free expression is a fundamental principle of a free, democratic, secular society, and we must not return, through the backdoor, to the type of society where religion is exempt from criticism, ridicule and satire.

Public opinion is in favour of allowing Mohammed to be depicted, but polling after the Jyllands-Posten case showed that 78% of British Muslims said the publishers should be prosecuted. Given the rate of social change, and the presence of well over three million Muslims in the United Kingdom, it is vital that universal values including freedom of expression are vigorously promoted in the education system. It must also be made clear to all that in an open and free society there can be no right not to be offended.

This difference between broader public opinion and the views of British Muslims represents a serious long-term concern. Worryingly, young Muslims are less tolerant than their forbears and according to a Policy Exchange poll this also suggests that such intolerance is more likely to grow rather than diminish. While it is clear that it is only a minority of Muslims who tell pollsters that they endorse violence, it is nonetheless a significant minority.

Blasphemy is one of the major areas of great public interest in religion and belief in society, and it presents urgent challenges.

One Labour MP reportedly said that blasphemy was the "number one" issue on the doorstep for their Muslim constituents during the 2015 General Election, and Keith Vaz MP, chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, indicated his willingness to vote for a blasphemy law that protected all faiths.

Many prohibitions on freedom of speech come from within higher education, where widespread 'no-platform' and safe space policies are limiting discussions, including around religion.

While you're here

Please consider a donation to enable us to continue challenging religious threats to free expression.