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Former Lord Chief Justice on exercising free speech "reasonably"

Former Lord Chief Justice on exercising free speech "reasonably"

Categories: Latest News

Wednesday February 11 2015

The Times (£) reports on the comments of Lord Woolf, a former Chief Justice of England and Wales, on causing gratuitous offence to religious minorities and observing the rule of law in respect of the right to freedom of religion.

Speaking at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, Lord Woolf touched on the issue of caricaturing individuals or symbols held to be special by religious communities saying, “By now it must surely be appreciated that depicting the prophet in a derogatory way will cause grave offence among many Muslims and can lead to an explosive reaction with dreadful consequences.”

“The power of the pen can be mighty and even cartoonists who rely sometimes on gross exaggeration to make their point do need to exercise self-restraint, particularly in sensitive areas where religion is involved.”

“Despite the importance of the right to free speech, you are not intended to exercise it regardless of the rights of others.”

“In other words, they should be exercised reasonably and in a manner that does not impinge disproportionately on the rights of others.”

Echoing the sentiments expressed by the Conservative MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Lord Woolf espoused the liberal position on the ‘harm principle’ which protects the freedom of individuals to act as they wish only insofar as this does not impinge on the rights of others.

In recent weeks Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, and Pope Francis have both spoken about due limits to free speech and respecting the sensitivities of people of different faiths.

Lord Woolf is patron of the Woolf Institute in Cambridge. The Institute recently announced its convening of a Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life. It will be interesting to learn of the Commission’s deliberations on the matter of free speech and human rights in religiously plural societies when the Commission reports its findings in the autumn.


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