Protect freedom of expression

Protect freedom of expression

Page 13 of 164: We promote free speech as a positive value.

Democracy cannot exist without the right to free speech.

Free speech should be robustly defended as a fundamental freedom.

The National Secular Society has defended free speech from religious threats since our founding. We played an instrumental role in abolishing "blasphemy" laws in Britain, but serious concerns remain. Blasphemy laws still exist in Northern Ireland. And throughout the UK, religious fundamentalists seek to impose their blasphemy taboos on others through violence and intimidation.

There are also increasing attempts to categorise offending religious sensibilities as 'hate speech', making criticism, mockery or perceived 'insult' of religion a criminal act akin to racial hatred or inciting violence – in other words, a 'blasphemy law by the back door'.

Without free speech no search for truth is possible; without free speech no discovery of truth is useful; without free speech progress is checked… Better a thousand fold abuse of free speech than denial of free speech.

NSS founder Charles Bradlaugh

We are further concerned by a developing 'culture of offence' in which any speech or action deemed likely to offend religious sensibilities is considered taboo. Enforced by a toxic mix of terrorism and religious deference, this is chilling free speech through self-censorship.

We also campaign against blasphemy laws around the world, where they continue to be used to target religious and political minorities. These are sometimes described by UK politicians as 'misuse' of blasphemy laws, but we contend there are never any legitimate uses for blasphemy laws.

Being offended from time to time is the price we all pay for living in a free society. Rather than trying to silence those we disagree with, we believe the answer to speech we don't like is more speech – better speech.

We therefore campaign to protect and preserve freedom of expression, including offensive, critical and shocking speech.

What you can do

1. Share your story

Tell us why you support this campaign, and how you are personally affected by the issue. You can also let us know if you would like assistance with a particular issue.

2. Join us

Become a member of the National Secular Society today! Together, we can separate religion and state for greater freedom and fairness.

Latest updates

Established church hinders religious freedom, NSS tells UN expert

Established church hinders religious freedom, NSS tells UN expert

Posted: Tue, 30 May 2023 08:37

The NSS has told a UN expert that lack of separation between Church and state is undermining freedom of religion or belief in the UK.

 NSS warns council on free speech after ‘Islamophobia’ allegation

NSS warns council on free speech after ‘Islamophobia’ allegations

Posted: Fri, 26 May 2023 11:31

The National Secular Society has warned members of Boston Council against characterising criticism of religion as 'hate speech'.

In a letter, the NSS expressed concern at comments made in relation to Councillor Mike Gilbert at the council's AGM on May 22.

In accordance with the council's tradition, as the longest serving member of the council Cllr Gilbert had been due to be appointed Mayor of Boston.

However, he was denied the role following accusations that a number of Facebook posts made in 2022 constituted 'hateful speech' towards Muslims.

The comments relating to Islam were made during the football World Cup hosted by Qatar, and raised concerns about aspects of Islamic doctrine which criminalise homosexuality and severely restrict the rights of women.

At the council meeting (pictured), Cllr Gilbert said: "I hold no prejudice against anyone on any inappropriate basis, but I do have specific views on politics, ideology, and religion that I am not willing to suppress in my political position".

Councillor Anne Dorrian, who was serving as mayor at the time, said that councillors had a political and moral obligation to "refrain from using hate speech". Failure to condemn such speech, Cllr Dorrian warned, could be interpreted as expressions of "approval or support".

Following the meeting, Cllr Dorrian said that Cllr Gilbert had been denied the mayoralty due to social media posts that people "just couldn't accept" with phrases that people found "offensive."

Other councillors spoke out in support of Cllr Gilbert.

The NSS said that by characterising this "legitimate criticism of Islamic doctrine" as hate speech the councillors had "unfairly smeared" Cllr Gilbert, whilst simultaneously undermining efforts to challenge religiously-based suppression of women's and LGBT rights.

It said that whilst individuals should be afforded respect and protection, ideas must be "open to scrutiny and debate", including "religious beliefs and practices".

NSS: Public debate must include ability to criticise religious doctrine

Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society said: "Holding a critical view of Islam, or any other ideology, is not in itself 'hateful'.

"In a free and open society, religious beliefs and practices must remain open to scrutiny and debate. By characterising Councillor Gilbert's legitimate criticism of Islamic doctrine as 'hate speech', councillors have unfairly smeared a fellow councillor – and at the same time, made it more difficult to challenge the religiously motivated suppression of women's rights and LGBT equality.

"Councillor Gilbert has merely expressed an unfavourable view of religious doctrine he disagrees with. Free speech and social cohesion are harmed if this is considered beyond the bounds of reasonable public debate."

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