Vikram Johri
Like It Or Not, Free Speech Includes The Right To Be Offensive

Freedom of speech is an indelible right that needs to be protected in a functional democracy. The response to expressing oneself freely cannot be violence.

At the 2011 Golden Globe awards, which Ricky Gervais hosted, the comedian cracked a joke on Tom Cruise and Scientology. There were two parts to the joke: the first, about the opposite of “straight actors playing gay”, was targetted at Cruise who has faced persistent rumours about his sexuality. The second was about Gervais’ lawyers vetting the joke, which was targeted at Scientology, a cult of which Cruise is a part, and which is known for its vengefulness against ex-adherents, specifically, and anyone who disagrees, generally.

Gervais was back playing host at this year’s Golden Globes but the sheer surprise at his return was indicative of how much he had roiled Hollywood royalty with his 2011 gig. (He threw shade at many other targets back then, but for the purposes of this essay, I am focussing on Scientology.) Sure enough, one of his conditions to return was that he be allowed to say anything, without any censoring from the television host of the Globes, NBC. He seems to have stuck to form, with some off-colour jokes about Caitlyn Jenner, who transitioned last year.

Ricky Gervais

Gervais (Thomas Atilla Lewis/Wikimedia Commons)

When asked by the Hollywood Reporter about his return, given his dig at Scientology, Gervais said:

…as for Scientology, if you can’t make fun of religion, what can you make fun of?

He added:

Also, I don’t think what Scientology believes is any weirder than any other belief in a magical sky wizard or deity. So, I wasn’t even picking on them. I wasn’t trying to undermine the moral fabric of America. I suppose they weren’t used to it being a bit of a tease and a bit of a roast. But I made the decision: ‘Do I pander to 200 fragile egos in the room or 200 million people watching at home?’

Gervais is, of course, right. The debate around free speech,whose latest victim back home is comedian Kiku Sharda, is now so touchy as to become completely sterile. Religion is the first and most potent port of call of those who take no prisoners in their fight for suppressing free speech. We see this repeatedly, at home and abroad, cutting across faiths. Charlie Hebdo, Malda, Kiku Sharda arrest, all of these are manifestations of conflicts between individuals rights and liberties and the might of the state or of goons/terrorists or simply of the old orthodoxy, and thus can be discussed under the broad rubric of free speech.

Kiku Sharda

Kiku Sharda

At the outset, let me state that the only legible defence of a suppression of free speech argument I can think of is the famous “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” example (part of a 1919 US Supreme Court case that debated the limits of the First Amendment of the US Constitution which guarantees free speech). So unless something creates unnecessary panic that immediately threatens lives, free speech must be the absolute goal.

Sharda’s case is similar to Gervais’, in that both faced consequences for poking fun at cults that harbour vast delusions of grandeur. Neither comedian was trying to undermine the “moral fabric” of his nation, as Gervais cheekily asserted in his Hollywood Reporter interview, nor should they be expected to be remiss in their duty to entertain the audience out of an imagined obeisance to a cult. In an unrelated case, the Supreme Court is hearing a petition that demands making Sardar jokes unlawful. Leave aside the impossibility of imposing such a ban should it come to pass, the issue also frames how the argument about hurting sentiments is so slippery as to often lead into farce.

The difference between Gervais and Sharda, of course, is the response of the system. While Gervais has only had to answer to the Hollywood press, Sharda was actually arrested, until His Holiness Gurmeet Ram Rahim tweeted that if the comedian had apologised, he had no problem withdrawing the case. Sharda was subsequently released on bail.

In the West, one avenue where the debate over free speech has been taking place with urgency is the campus. Much of the push over the recent past pertains to the nature of history and how we choose to commemorate certain figures of the past. At Oriel College, Oxford, some students have demanded a dismantling of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, after whom the Rhodes Scholarship is named, for the systematic abuses he perpetrated in South Africa as a colonialist.


Some commentators have taken issue with the demand, deeming it “the profound intolerance of the progressive ideology”. They look upon any such demand as inimical to the remit of the university which they (rightly) believe should encourage dialogue and foster an ability to deal with uncomfortable truths. Certainly, there is a case for engaging with divisive figures from the past, rather than eliminating them from daily life on campus.

But the question of how that engagement is done is a distinction that needs to be explored. Examining whether a statue should continue to stand is not necessarily a matter of silencing history but of another, less obvious issue: how deeply certain crimes have exercised the public imagination.

Think of Hitler. Would we allow a scholarship to be run in his name? A statue, an endowment, a charity? The very idea is too distasteful, and we must ask ourselves if that is perhaps because his crimes are so well-known and the descendants of his victims so committed to redressing the wrongs done to their forefathers. There is a grim and distressing global narrative to the Holocaust that other hate campaigns of the past do not share.

Allowing debate and encouraging a healthy intellectual life on campus does not preclude removing some figures from places of importance or relevance. This is not washing away of history; it is looking at it from today’s perspective, and heeding the voices of those who have not only suffered but, in the global scales of which atrocity counts for more and which for less, been silenced.

Let’s shift to India, where the discussion around free speech often descends into a fight between the ‘Left’ and the ‘Right’. Guardians of tradition come across as bigoted while “liberals” vent their frustration at a system that refuses to budge.

One may find these reasons acceptable or not depending on one’s politics—and the best of us are prone to blind spots in choosing our fights—but the good thing is that these issues are being debated publicly. The crucial difference in Sharda’s case was the threat of the law, which added a certain sinister edge to what is an essential democratic good. If we are to eternally watch our mouths about people in positions of power, be it politics or religious, can we call ourselves a true democracy?

That said, the debate has an added layer of complexity. Sharda’s incarceration was done under the authority of the state, and therefore, attracted much ridicule. What about incidents when people, commoners or terrorists, take the law in their own hand over perceived slights to their gods and goddesses? How do we frame a response to Charlie Hebdo or Malda without coming across as hypocritical about our free speech ideals?

When President Obama chided Donald Trump for demonising Muslims in his latest State of the Union address, he was essentially pointing to the crucial difference between a faith and its practitioners. Any faith is, simplistically speaking, a set of ideas, which should be open to debate and criticism. On the other hand of the ideological spectrum are those who will not countenance any criticism of religion under the premise that it demonises a people. It does not. Islam is an idea; its adherents are real people. Criticising the former does not demonise the latter.

Writing “An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims” in the Huffington Post, Canadian blogger Ali Rizvi quotes specific verses from the Koran that make it incumbent upon the faithful to resort to all means possible, including grievous violence, to punish the disbelievers. Yet, even moderate Muslims, he says, cannot bring themselves to criticise the text. “Despite being shown multiple translations,” Rizvi writes, “or told that some of these passages (like similar passages in other holy books) are questionable in any context, the Muslim insists on his/her defense of the Scripture.”

Rizvi’s argument is this: Koran is the purported word of Allah. It is merely a guide to good living, not a text meant to be taken literally. It is open to criticism and debate, as are texts of other religions, such as Manusmriti which is widely acknowledged to be discriminatory towards Dalits and women. Religion cannot be a fixed set of dogmas that continue to work their biases divorced from an evolving environment of rights and liberties.

Rizvi’s advice, then, serves as a good barometer of what free speech should be about. Making fun of figures, be it gods or goddesses, Ram or Rahim, may be distasteful but distaste is the price we pay for a functioning democracy. Criticising ideas – any idea — is fair game. The moment this criticism is used as justification for violence is the moment we need to watch out for. Let’s make no compromises here, regardless of the creed or colour of the perpetrators, and regardless of whether the hand of the state is operative.