Matthew Syed: criticising bigotry is not an attack on free speech

Olympic silver-medalist Louis Smith has received much public criticism for the drunken video he made of himself and fellow gymnast Luke Carson appearing to mock Islam.


Like any situation involving a celebrity, a camera, and allegations of bigotry, the battle lines have firmly been drawn. On one hand, we have those who, quite understandably, call the video racist. They then contend that Smith himself is racist and that he should face some sort of repercussions from the British Amateur Gymnastics Association (BAGA).


On the other hand, we have the free speech advocates who value above all else the right of people to ridicule religion, and Islam in particular. The much respected Matthew Syed, of whom I am an avid reader, has taken this stance in an article for The Times. He argues that it is the right of everyone, including Louis Smith, to “challenge, test, examine, interrogate and, indeed, satirise and ridicule” the beliefs of others.


There is nothing to be gained from taking either of these sides, as plenty of other columnists and bloggers will take care of that. But it is important to explain why free speech is never an excuse to avoid experiencing consequences for bigotry and insensitivity. Such an argument is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what free speech is.


Syed says that “free speech constrained by religious sensibilities is no free speech at all”, and of course this is a reasonable position. However, the concept of free speech was created to prevent the state from arresting you for saying something disagreeable or for expressing any sort of dissent. It was not put in place for people to hide behind whenever they are criticised for being racist, sexist or homophobic.


It is not as if Smith had posted a well thought-out criticism (or intelligent satire) of Islam. I would passionately defend him in such a case. But it was just ignorance.


Of course Smith should be free to mock Islam - in fact, he very much is. But that does not mean he should be free from experiencing criticism for it. If BAGA or the British Olympic Association decides to suspend him or ban him, that is not infringing on his right to free speech. It is an inclusive organisation announcing loud and clear that they will not tolerate juvenile acts of bigotry.


People criticising Smith are exercising their own free speech rights. He also did the right thing in posting what appears to be a sincere apology. I am unsure what Syed means when he says Smith “should” be free to mock Islam. He just did, so he obviously is. Do you mean to say that he should be free to mock Islam without criticism? How absurd.

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