The Muslim Debate

Conclusion of Online Debate: Freedom of expression gives one the right to insult


Conclusion of Online Debate: Freedom of expression gives one the right to insult


The research based think tank MUSLIM Institute’s debate forum, "The Muslim Debate" concluded its debate with the motion being "Freedom of expression gives one the right to insult", with 19% of the participants voting FOR and 81% AGAINST the motion. The debate took place online from 4th May 2015 to 24th May 2015, where people from over 70 countries participated in the debate through their votes and comments.



For the motion


Ms. Hillary Stauffer
International Lawyer & Visiting Fellow at Centre for the Study of Human Rights,
London School of Economics & Political Science – UK

While defending the motion, Ms. Stauffer highlighted some important points in her opening, rebuttal and closing statements. She explained the American position on free speech and then highlighted the major human rights instruments which address the notion of the freedom of expression. Ms. Stauffer also stated that nowhere around the globe is freedom of expression a completely unrestricted right, and believes that the process to change of our mind and to evolve our thinking rarely happens unless our biases are tested and provoked. Ms. Stauffer argued that, though sometimes, people choose to be told by the government or religious leaders how to think and feel, this also carries the possibility that those authorities may have their own vested interests. She emphasized that the freedom to insult is not a duty to insult and the fact that one can carry such an insult does not mean one will. She made it clear that what is insulting to one person or a small minority cannot be the yardstick by which freedom of expression is measured. Ms. Stauffer also clarified that her position is ‘NOT’ that freedom of expression shouldn’t have consequences, but any restrictions on it must necessarily be related to the possible harm it may incur. She also talked about Charlie Hebdo's publication, that though she found them insulting on a personal level but being advocate of freedom of expression, she finds her solution in not buying its copies and not visiting its website. Concluding her closing remarks, Ms. Stauffer said that collectively as human beings we are strong enough to take such ‘insults’ and shouldn’t restrict such a crucial right, as bigoted and ill-intentioned ideas will fade over time just like they always have been.



Against the motion


Dr. Jameson W. Doig
Professor Emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University – USA

Opposing the motion, Dr. Doig believes that censorships on freedom of expression should be codenamed and he elaborated the US situations under which penalties can be imposed if free speech is used to abuse. He states that ‘right to insult’ is protected from legal action as a consequence of interpretation of first amendment by the Supreme Court of America. Dr. Doig criticized the position taken in Bredenburg v Ohio (1969) in which the Supreme Court laid down that insult is legally acceptable unless it urges imminent action against targeted group or individual and such action is very likely to follow. It thus implies that acts like burning a cross in the yard of an African-American or pasting a caricature of African-American or write ‘N’ word on the doors of college students and publication of graphically explicit material are all protected under the doctrine of freedom of expression. Permitting abusive speech thus, raises the possibility that some members of society would believe the messages conveyed, “leading to discrimination, and perhaps even violence, against minority groups”. He also argued that Brandenburg (American Standard) and Brian Dickson (Canadian) Standard could be used to declare Charlie Hebdo’s mocking as a hate speech and hence illegal. Dr. Doig appreciated Canadian rule of law on freedom of expression that, we should give importance to individual dignity and cultural and group identity while restricting hate speech. In his concluding remarks, Dr. Doig believed this debate to be “an excellent exchange of views on the problem of insulting speech and hateful expression generally.”



Featured Guests


Dr. Brian Klug
Senior Research Fellow & Tutor in Philosophy at St. Benet’s Hall, University of Oxford – UK

Dr. Brian Klug argued against the motion and emphasized on the importance of living standards in a society. He stated that the kind of society he wants to see is based on the principle that every member has inherent dignity and equal worth. As he affirms this principle thus he believes in the right to freedom of expression – and not in the right to insult. Dr. Klug avowed that as we do not affirm the right to lie, the right to deceive, the right to betray a confidence or the right to be callous – exactly the same applies to the right to insult.


Prof. Geoffrey R. Stone
Edward H. Levi Distinguished Service Professor of Law, The University of Chicago – USA

Prof. Geoffrey R. Stone argued that hate speech hurts people, it hurts their feelings, it makes them less likely to speak out, and it causes discrimination. But all speeches cause harm. He gave the example that when he calls on a student in class and demonstrate that he doesn't understand the material, it hurt his feelings, make him less likely to speak out, and cause other students to think less well of him. Prof. Stone believes that speech cannot be subject to restriction merely because it causes harm, as ‘one man’s free speech is another man’s hate speech’.


Ms. Lauren Booth
Journalist, Broadcaster and Human Rights Activist – UK

Sharing her personal experiences, as well as of her children, encountering hatred in the society, Ms. Booth asked that “why should it ever be a protected element of society to hurt, persecute or defame a person, a faith or a much beloved and important spiritual icon?” She said that deciding not to buy a degrading publication or changing a TV channel where such speech is being practiced, is simply not enough to counter the effect. She also raised the questions about the effects it has on the people reading or watching such publication, inflamed by the contents and may repeat those insults as a consequence. Ms. Booth concluded while saying that insults are not a defense of free speech but rather a failing of our ability to know and respect one another.



Comments from the Floor

People from different parts of world gave their input in the debate via their comments. Some words from selected comments are:

Jes Broeng: “…One can always disagree with policies, beliefs, countries’ policies/behaviors, nations, religions or cultures etc., and can give all sorts of reasons why he or she disagrees, but one does not need to insult the other to get the point across…..”.

Sumaira Khalid: “ …If by merely 'expressing' one's opinion, widespread chaos and riots result and divisions along religious and ethnic lines are violently reinforced, no law or convention should provide immunity to that action (expressing such opinion).”

N. Khan: “…One can voice for political rights, his/her personal FEELINGS AND OPINION, and ideas for or against some laws and government policies etc. etc. However, this rule has limitations and people are not allowed to defame someone without any proof, to hurt someone or a group, to insult and individual or his/her faith etc etc.”

Yasir Khan:“…. In France, where some people spewed hatred, hate speech is only illegal if it directly incites violence, Well, 7 million copies that were published following the killings did exactly that, triggering violent protests across the Muslim world, including one in Niger, in which 10 people died. Meanwhile, the French government kept busy rounding up and arresting over 100 Muslims who had foolishly used their freedom of speech to express their support of the attacks. Dual standards……”

Muhammad Ali Shahbaz: “…We live in a global world where insulting someone on marginalized basis and to intimidate nothing but aggression and a sense of hatred can initiate the real clash of civilizations.”

Irfana Barveen Mohamed Ishak: “….In any country, laws should play a major role in preventing society from harm, although, making errors is a part of human nature. But laws should not permit this by allowing “Freedom of expression gives right to insult.”…”

Abu Tahir Haqeeqi: “….The idea of free speech/expression is theoretically flawed and practically politicized..…. I would say, Freedom of expression must have limitations, otherwise it will result in destruction of Society. Freedom of expression = Freedom of Action = Freedom to Attack/kill = destruction of Society & humanity.”

Wajid Ali: “…..In societies rules and regulations are made to prevent discomfort and a lesson for the guilty, they are not made or narrated with the objective of reacting on being offended or victim..… The rules for the freedom of expression should be narrated, unanimously agreed on and implement in order to prevent the social unrest (and ensure) peace and harmony in the societies and world at large"

Susic Sejo: “Freedom of expression needs to have limits. When someone's freedom threatened or reduces other freedoms, or cause harm, then it cannot be called more freedom, it is insult or something more serious….. Therefore, there is an urgent need to regulate the acts of blasphemy, not only domestically but by international law as well. ….”

Adnan H Satti: “….I very humbly suggest that in order to have sustainable peace and harmony among the members of society itself and with other societies having different ideology than that of ours, we have to practice ourselves and educate others to express themselves in respectful manner, as it is need of the hour….”

Daniella P.: “…Any one stance can be a freedom of speech to one group and insult to the other. It all depends on which side you are standing, all depends which side of argument you want to listen and which you cannot bear….. If freedom of speech would have been allowed with restrictions , it would have never been called a FREEDOM in first place….”

Kovacs-Ferenczi Noemi: “…Considering purely the theory here insult is an unfortunate but necessary possible byproduct of free speech and expression, just as insult is an unfortunate but unavoidable byproduct of honesty….… I believe that free speech and freedom of expression has to be absolute, and should be granted. Corollaries can be dealt with afterwards. To ensure that these freedoms work the state must provide good education, reasonable regulation, public debates and a good definition of hate speech…..”





After almost three weeks of extensive, well-articulated and coherent arguments from both sides, the debate “Freedom of expression gives one the right to insult” came to an end. Since the commencement, the voting statistics have been inclined towards the opposition and 81% of the participants in the end have sided against the motion, represented by Dr. James Doig, concluding that freedom of expression does not give one the right to insult. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to ignore the remaining 19% of participants’ views siding with Ms. Hilary Stauffer in favor of the motion. Even though the debate concluded against the motion, we were still able to learn and explore this timely issue from various perspectives. In doing so, there was some common ground between the two sides. Likewise, the productive reasoning brought forward some important arguments and factual evidence that broadened the understanding of our audience, who followed and participated in the debate with great zest.


In order to view the full arguments presented by both sides, remarks by our featured guests and comments on the floor, please visit: .