Politics, Philosophy, Polemics

Boris Johnson: Enemy of Freedom

In Freedom of Expression on February 28, 2013 at 11:39 PM

The story is reported by Sky News:

A Christian group has launched a battle “for free speech” against London’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, after he banned its adverts claiming gay people can be “cured” from buses.

Mr Johnson said the ads by the Core Issues Trust could offend gay people and spark retaliation against the wider Christian community.

The advert in question reads:

NOT GAY! EX-GAY, POST-GAY AND PROUD. GET OVER IT!

I concur with the sentiment that the advert could be perceived as offensive by the gay community. What I disagree with is that offense, in itself, is reason for banning the advert. Who says that people have a right not to be offended or that someone has no right to offend?

The consistent logical position of someone who wishes these adverts banned because they offend gay people is that Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses should be banned because many Muslims are offended. The floodgates will be open for any minority or even majority group to express horror at something and claim they are offended and demand it banned. One can ask Boris Johnson how he would react to a concerted campaign by church groups to pressure him to use his position to ban Gay Pride, a march through London celebrating gay culture, because Christians are offended. In order to ban the Core Issues Trust advert because of offence caused but not gay pride for a similar reason, the Mayor would have to tie himself up in knots trying to justify his position.

Nick Cohen comments in his latest book, You Can’t Read This Book: Censorship in an Age of Freedom, [(Fourth Estate, 2012), p.229], that J.S. Mill’s principle from his 1859 essay “On Liberty,” one whereby people have the right not to be harmed, has gradually been replaced with what the philosopher Joel Feinberg called the “offence principle,” whereby societies can punish people just because they are offended.

In the case of the bus advert, nobody is physically harmed by an advert that suggests gay people can be cured. They are just offended and offence should not be a crime or reason for censorship. If the advert was an incitement to violence then that is a different matter, but it does not seem to me that the words on the advert can be interpreted, even loosely, as inciting violence.

A separate argument can be made that the Core Issues Trust does have freedom of speech but that right does not extend to insisting that Transport for London carries its adverts. I would accept this argument if buses run by Transport for London acted in a competitive world with other bus companies, but it doesn’t. Because of its unique position as the bus operating company in London and because of subsidies that Transport for London receives, it loses the right to act solely at the whims of those in charge of the organisation and must consider its role in society. It should treat people fairly. It accepted an advert from the gay rights pressure group, Stonewall, that stated, “SOME PEOPLE ARE GAY. GET OVER IT!” It should therefore accept the advert from Core Issues Trust.

Hat Tip: RG

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  1. I am not certain that commercial speech and political speech have the same protections.
    If this was a purely political ( albeit daft and offensive) then you are correct. Did the ads attempt to steer people to a specific treatment? If so then the context is different as commercial speech.

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