Free Speech or Worthy Speech?

There’s a meme going round, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

One recent example forms the lead in to an article in Forth, and goes as follows:

“We have to defend Lars Vilks because free speech matters but he’s a fool and his alleged would-be assassins arrested in Ireland are bumbling idiots, says Finbar Rosato in Sweden.”

Heres another quote from the article along the same lines:

“We must defend the right to free-expression, no matter what the content of that expression is – but that doesn’t mean we have to take that content seriously. The question is, why do people think this is a serious contribution to dialogue?” [Sorry, full article is behind a paywall].

In fairness to Finbar (and others expressing similar sentiments), they does make it clear they are not equating terrorists and cartoonists. But the meme is there: Free speech should be worthwhile.

Finbar draws a parallel between Salman Rushdie and the cartoonists. The former is Art, the latter merely “scribblings” by a “small child”.

Naturally, Finbar concludes by supporting cartoonists free speech rights. He just wishes they were classier.

Maybe he should read this article, free in Forth.

By Gerard Cunningham

Gerard Cunningham occupies his time working as a journalist, writer, sub-editor, blogger and podcaster, yet still finds himself underemployed.


  1. Hmm, I see your point Gerard but… There are people arguing for something we might call ‘priviliged’ speech rather than free speech but I don’t think that’s what Finbar is doing.

    He’s saying we do have to defend things we don’t like and he clearly doesn’t like this artist. So, yes, he is making an intellectual and aesthetic judgement but he’s still defending the work, just saddened that he has to.


  2. Jason, you’re an art critic at times, as I understand it.

    Tell me, who gets to decide what is art and what is mere childish scribblings?

  3. Oh My God!!

    I’m referring to Jason Walsh’s freeview forth article.

    It is written:

    ““If you look at the landmark free speech cases in the US, the people the ACLU defend are never nice people – they defend neo-Nazis who want to march in Skokie, Illinois and they defend Hustler magazine.”.

    Now, it’s not clear to me whether it was Gerard Cunningham or Jason Walsh who originally wrote this because Mr Walsh opens but doesn’t close the quotation marks..

    However, I must say I don’t agree with that statement at all at all. First of all, I don’t agree that Hustler magazine are never nice people and secondly I don’t agree with comparing Hustler magazine to neo-Nazis.

    So what is so “never nice” about Hustler magazine?

    Is it because it was one of the first major men’s magazines to show much more explicit views of female genitalia back in the early 70s? Is it because it was the first US magazine to show public hair?

    Pray tell, please enlighten me!!

    I must say I find this comparison very bizarre. (though very Irish!)

  4. Those were my words Paul, quoted by Jason Walsh. And whether you think Hustler is an admirable publication or not, most people would not regard them as a paragon of human rights or good taste. And by the way. Hustler didn’t have to go to the Supreme Court to defend the right to free speech because they published explicit nude photographs, but because they published a cartoon satirising a religious figure.

    The point I was making is, there’s always someone (and usually quite a few people) who will regard the person whose free speech rights are under attack as undeserving of protection. That’s pretty much why the ACLU defend unpopular causes, and make themselves unpopular. Attacks on civil liberties always start by attacking unpopular segments of society. If you wait until beloved institutions are gagged, then it’s too late. Your rights are already gone.

  5. “Tell me, who gets to decide what is art and what is mere childish scribblings?”

    I’m not sure you want to get me started on that particular issue. I’m not sure the art world has any criteria left to make meaningful qualitative judgements.

  6. Paul,

    I do close the quotation marks – at the end of the next paragraph. It’s normal publishing style to leave the quotation open if it is broken over multiple paragraphs because it is a single statement.

    I also think Gerard’s statement is perfectly clear: people are often all for free speech until they have to defend someone they don’t like. Such an argument is not free speech.

  7. “I’m not sure the art world has any criteria left to make meaningful qualitative judgements.”

    Well yes, that was kind of my point. [insert smiley icon here]

  8. Jason,

    You provided opening quotation marks for the first paragraph but you didn’t close them at the end of the paragraph. For the second paragraph, you provided new opening quotation marks and you closed them at the end of what you wanted to quote.

    Therefore, it was not clear to me whether what was written in the first paragraph was written originally by you or Gerard.

  9. Paul, the style you describe, with an opening quotemark at the start of each par, and a closing quotemark only at the end of the entire quotation, is standard practice in journalism. Jason, like me, is a journalist. Sorry if it’s confusing for you, but you’ll find the same style in pretty much every English-language newspaper in the world.

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