If you limit freedom of expression, is it still a freedom?

Published: January 16, 2015

Pope Francis delivering a speech during a meeting of the world's cardinals. PHOTO: AFP

Pope Francis is a man to be admired. Since taking the Papacy in March 2013 and shedding the traditional gold, the Argentinian pope has won hearts across the globe with his wisdom, humbleness and what seems to be an earnest attempt to create a better understanding between cultures and religions.   

As the face of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis has often released prudent statements after controversial events that, at the very least, are received with quiet acceptance. Such is the pragmatic nature of Pope Francis that one can imagine that even those chastised by him take a moment to uncomfortably stare at their shoes as they lower their heads with feelings of guilt.

The recent al Qaeda attack at Charlie Hebdo in France has certainly sparked a debate on the subject of freedom of expression. Here too, the good Pope has weighed in. Although the Vatican has clarified that nothing justifies the attacks, Pope Francis has stated that there should be boundaries on the freedom of speech,

“There is a limit. Every religion has its dignity. In freedom of expression there are limits.”

Speaking of his friend Alberto Gasbarri, who happened to be standing next to him at the time, Pope Francis went on to say in a light-hearted manner,

“If my good friend Doctor Gasparri (who organises the Pope’s trips) speaks badly of my mother, he can expect to get punched,” he said, throwing a pretend punch at the doctor, who was standing beside him.

“You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others. There is a limit.”

While I appreciate his sentiments, the counter argument here is, if you are going to limit the freedom of speech with a shackle, no matter how loose, it no longer remains a freedom.

As I stated in an earlier blog, the beauty of freedom of speech is that as an ideal, it fosters advancement in every facet of human expression. Unshackled, exceptional members of mankind are free to soar, and free to debate anything.

Those who believed the world is flat would have kept us from traveling its corners. Those who believed the sun was a god and its rays were a holy embrace are probably dead from skin cancer. People who felt filmmaking is a sin would never have allowed the world to enjoy the magic of cinema.

There is something holy to everyone in the world. Any advancement mankind has made has been offensive to at least one person, and you can’t limit these freedoms of human expression if those offended are many and wield sticks and stones rather than words.

If the only downside to this is that certain members will misuse this freedom to hurt the feelings of others, then it must be taken as an unfortunate side effect. While anyone has the freedom to say anything they want, you have the freedom to decide not to consume the product of their freedom of expression.

Trying to decide what limitations to place on the freedom of speech is like climbing a very slippery slope. It is as futile as two men with opposing views trying to decide where an eagle they own is allowed to explore. While the first man prefers that their bird not be sent towards the mountains, the other prefers it not to fly into the woods. Each limitation is respectively important to each man, and each limitation limits the vital information the two can gain about their geographical surroundings. Rather than keeping the pet sulking at home, why not allow it to travel to both locations? Perhaps the eagle will be more at risk during this task but it is better than the alternative of living in ignorance.

On the subject of religion, keep in mind that every religion is holy and perfect to the person who follows it. Take Scientology for example. I think this religion is completely absurd. I can say this because Scientology followers aren’t likely to raid my office and kill me and several of my friends. The benefit of being able to openly criticise Scientology is that the religion will be kept in check and grow only through legitimate means, and will think twice before adopting questionable ideals. Whether any ideal is questionable is not up to any one man, but to society in general through debate. This is not only beneficial for the world, but the religion of Scientology itself.

Consider how many questionable decisions have been made in the name of religion throughout history. Yes, these questionable decisions were only made because they couldn’t be questioned. At this moment in time, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) remains unchallenged by those under its rule because it controls the freedom of expression with a tight fist. Tomorrow ISIS could rule that all of its followers must wear pink bunny rabbit ears and hop around the battlefield, and its territory would look like it was celebrating a very violent version of Easter.

The problem with curtailing freedom of expression is that no one deserves the supreme power of making this decision. History has shown that those in charge of setting the bar have placed these limitations in line with their own beliefs and agendas. There is no one with the morale authority to create such boundaries, not even the pope. The only morale boundary is to have no boundaries at all.

Noman Ansari

Noman Ansari

The author is the editor-in-chief of IGN Pakistan, and has been reviewing films and writing opinion pieces for The Express Tribune as well as Dawn for five years. He tweets as @Pugnate (twitter.com/Pugnate)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Sceptic

    Totally agreed. I don’t think its mandatory to respect all beliefs and ideals, they have to earn my respect. I respect the people that hold those beliefs and their rights to do so. If Satanists rose up one day and demanded that Muslims stop targeting their holy figure Satan, I doubt any Muslim would comply..Recommend

  • vinsin

    100% right. India has laws which curtain freedom of speech and expression and by those laws Quran is offensive to non Muslim. Even though Calcutta high Court wanted to ban Quran according to those laws but didn’t and gave special rights to Muslims.Recommend

  • amjad

    Yes freedom has some boundries. If v r living in a free society , we need to follow and obey the rules and regulations of that society. As a part of Global village , societies made laws and regulations according to the need of the global village. So to follow those does not mean that v can’t enjoy freedom.
    Like some other westeren hold on international issues ,they are ruling over information and communication world that only serve their agenda and 72 countries went to UNESCO on the issue and that was neglected and politicized by USA and UK. Freedom does not mean to enter so eons house . Recommend

  • Blue Liberal

    No limits to freedom of expression please, the pope is just another religious imperialist.Recommend

  • Kallie

    A freedom with limits is certainly still a freedom. This is the nature of civilized society. All of our freedoms are limited, at a minimum, by our inability to exercise that freedom to the detriment of others’ freedoms.Recommend

  • wb

    When was this? Interesting.

  • Amna

    There are always limits on everything. You can argue and debate, but to just insult unnecessarily is not okay. That being said I don’t see our so called progressive Pakistanis caring when the West puts restrictions on discussing the Holocaust or Israel outside of their accepted standards.Recommend

  • wb

    Absolutely. 100%.Recommend

  • wb

    Only one who has no real taste of civilized society can say so.Recommend

  • Critical

    We should know one thing about freedom of expression

    “People have rights,but their ideas dont”

    I can worship Thor…Demand my company to allocate Thursday as a paid leave for me so that I can attend prayers..and my religion can give me rights to strike all non-believers with a hammer and given an electric shock if they dont decide to convert….When I die,I will be sent to Asgard if I do my duties correctly or I will be punished by frost giants in Jotunheim

    Does that mean that everyone should respect my ideas and not offend me???

    BTW,getting advice about freedom of expression from Pope is like getting advice about chastity from Sunny Leone..

    Until recently,Popes believed that condoms are wrong,gays and atheists will be sent to hell and lets not talk about what they did during the Dark Ages…..Recommend

  • Saad

    I don’t get it. They say words are more dangerous and powerful than guns. Yet we emphasize on gun control and promote free speechRecommend

  • Faraz Talat

    The pope’s remarks are profoundly disturbing; especially coming from the head of an institution historically infamous for the suppression of freethought through violence.

    Such a disappointment.Recommend

  • ab1990

    if muslims are so much hurt by these cartoons they should leave france and migrate to any islamic paradise. Killing people for a cartoon was the biggest mistake.Recommend

  • tman

    dumbest article I ever read. Try making fun of pedophilia or the Holocaust in a western publication and see where it gets you.Recommend

  • Julian Lilio

    Interesting view, but lacks merit. Freedom of expression is not absolute… there’s such a thing in jurisprudence called “the 3 point test”. Your last sentence especially shows a lack of understanding of certain provisions of international law. The pope seems to be only reiterating what the law actually tells us.


  • Annie

    Frameworks are important for the working of a society. Even science works within the framework of the scientific method. Countries work within the framework of their constitutions. Absolute freedom, even that of expression, may lead to chaos and anarchy.Recommend

  • Ali

    Very well written. Religions are the chains of human minds and they don’t deserve any respect from me. However anybody has all rights to believe in those religions. If they want respect from me they will have to earn it. Bullying and violence will not help.Recommend

  • Parvez

    In a Utopian world, yes…..in a flawed, unjust world, no.Recommend

  • Faulitics

    Noman Ansari is too rational and sensible to be a Pakistani. I suspect that he is a Scandinavian masquerading as a Pakistani.Recommend

  • Sameer

    While defining freedom of expression you cannot just forget religion, because you cannot escape from it, this is what governs the world and this is what one is born with.
    Absolute freedom of expression cannot be justified.
    The world is bound by rules and regulations and you can imagine how the world will look like without the rules, regulations.
    Murdering someone is freedom of expression, someone hated someone, he wanted to express so he murdered him.. simple!! but no thats not the way, there are rules and regulations and so there should be for freedom of speech and expression.

    Absolute freedom of expression can no way be justified.Recommend

  • Usman

    @Noman Ansari: Should there be any difference between freedom of speech and freedom to insult? Absolute freedom of speech includes freedom to insult and that causes destruction only. Only lawless society can allow absolute freedom of speech and every society has its own version of freedom of speech.Recommend

  • michelle arif

    Kallie you are absolutely right. Everything should be practiced within a limit.Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    You realize that I am not defending the West? I am defending the concept of free speech. I agree that there is hypocrisy there.Recommend

  • Noman Ansari

    Uhh causing bodily harm to another person doesn’t fall under freedom of speech.Recommend

  • Freeman

    Can one “misuse” freedom of speech as the author says? Not in my book. Let each person decide based on his or her conscience; not the government or the protestor; at least in freedom-bestowing and freedom-protecting democratic lands (and even among them the levels of freedoms are different). In a seemingly interconnected “small” world we live in, many people forget that there are still separate and autonomous nations and people who define freedoms and human rights differently, even though we have this grand illusion that all people are the same following similar norms and rules. Not so. Despite all the “liberal” talk on these blogs (many by people living abroad), the fact remains Pakistan’s freedom landscape (including speech) is quite from that in France. But compared to Saudi Arabia, will a blogger be flogged publicly with 1,000 lashes in Pakistan for certain verbal offenses about “forbidden” subjects? Probably has better chance of being by a fanatic than punished by the state. So let’s be real. We are not a “small world, after all”.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    Sexton Blake, I presume?Recommend

  • abhi

    Excellent blog. When I read Pope’s statement I was shocked. Then I realised that after all he is a Pope and he has to save his religious empire.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    So you do not believe in the “out of box” thinking framework? I do not think the scientific method is a “constraining” framework like the Constitution but more of a protocol to follow in discovering the mechanism underlying natural phenomena. Thus, attempts to identify and disconfirm alternative explanations for a phenomenon is a useful guide. The notion of falsifiability is essential in scientific tests of hypotheses (see Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn). Freedom of speech, if placed in a box or a framework, would be detrimental to the progress of science. This can be seen in the vast scientific progress made by free, democratic societies than by unfree, undemocratic societies. South Korea has progressed far more in the last few years as a more democratic society than when it was run by iron-clad autocrats (Songman Rhee?) more than a decade ago.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    Pedophilia is a crime against children. Holocaust was the murder of 6 million Jews in gas chambers. Yet, only denial of it is prosecutable offense, and not discussion or making fun. But is anyone getting being murdered without due process of the law (a Western legal concept)? You are free to make fun of those topics in Pakistan. Right? I am asking.Recommend

  • Yo2Da2

    If you can come up with a common definition for “insulting”, then we can talk. Crying “fire!” in a crowded movie theater is not covered by the freedom of speech in the US as it can result in real panic as the audience runs for the fire exits. But saying “Jesus is just a prophet and not God’s son” in the same theater is permissible even when the theater may be filled with literalist Evangelical Christians for whom that is an insult.Recommend

  • Bikramiavalligath Kidwai

    How can you allow these hateful offensive comment by a hindu?Recommend

  • Faisal

    Excess of everything is dangerous. We love our Islam. The true religion. 1000s of scientific facts are written correctly in Quran. It is a word of God. So we follow it. We all Muslims believe it to be a word of God. I can prove it with the help of science. Thanks allRecommend

  • Roon

    Russia once wanted to ban the BhagvadGita. If you agree to baning the Quran would you agree to this too? Also isn’t it hypocritical calling for a ban on a book while advocating free speech?

    The Bhagvadgita has been deemed by some as deeply offensive too:

    “based on an assessment of the book by scholars of Tomsk State University, which concluded that Bhaktivedanta Swami’s translations and commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita incite religious, social, and racial intolerance.”

    Would you agree to this or is your animosity reserved for Muslims?Recommend

  • Raffay

    “Scientology followers aren’t likely to raid my office and kill me and several of my friends.”

    Actually the Church of Scientology has been under intense scrutiny due to many of its illegal actions…


  • Salma

    Not a very Christian virtue, to punch the guy who had some nasty things to say of your mom — religion presumably. This goes to show that the protectors of faith are the ones who least practise it. Hasn’t the Church indulged in witch hunting after all? Hasn’t Martin Luther uttered the most profane curses on the Jews? How may kind words does one have for those who worship God through idols? Bane of religions. When protector of one faith pokes fun at the other faith he/she is being honest. But when the other does it, it becomes abuse of freedom. Dignity of religion is in transcending pettiness. Not showing a fist, or pumping a bullet. Wait. It is not pettiness in the other guy. May be he is pointing to something wrong with me even when he is lampooning me. It is the pettiness in me. That I do not respect life because I am a defender of faith. That twisted logic is pettiness. Perversity.Recommend

  • Hope

    People need to understand that freedom of expression includes criticism, disagreement or rejection of faiths or ideology but does not allow ‘Insult’. The need to rethink and fix their definition of ‘Freedom of Expression’.Recommend

  • Queen

    There should be limits to freedom of expression. I can’t go on abusing someone’s mother or father just because I have freedom of expression. With every freedom comes responsibility and in case of freedom of expression, the responsibility is not to hurt the feelings of others.Recommend

  • vinsin
  • vinsin

    It is the opposite of what you said happens.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Are you confused between historical events and religion? Recommend

  • vinsin

    Islam is a religion, Holocaust is a historical event and pedophiia is a crime. How are of them are same according to you? You can change your religion not your race, historical evens, crime committed by someone, your parents etc. In most of the western countries people make fun of Holocaust and all the books are written in western countries so reason for your lying.Recommend

  • wb

    Sorry, but you can’t explain that to most people.

    Try explaining the difference between hate speech and freedom of expression to most people and you’re bound to fail.Recommend

  • wb

    It is disturbing, but it is expected.

    It is expected of any religious heads.

    It’s a question of their rozi-roti.Recommend

  • qazi

    //The only morale boundary is to have no boundaries at all.//

    it appalls me that writer shuns all boundaries. What if i express my freedom by stabbing any one who call me names? and i should not be judged or sentenced to punsihment?
    No boundaries are limited to the extent of harm to others freedom. i hope i made clear of what i want to say.Recommend

  • Haroon

    Please don’t spread misinformation, Calcutta high Court never wanted to ban the Quran, it was a petition by some Hindu fanatics which was soundly thrown out of court…Recommend

  • siesmann

    A book of faith can’t serve as a scientific text,however hard one tries to rationalize it.Recommend

  • vinsin

    You are right. I just mentioned that under hate speech laws of India a ban has been attempted by people in Calcutta height court. You cannot ban any book under free speech. Free speech doesn’t exists in most of the countries and if not then any book can be banned. Bhagvatgita can be banned if doesn’t full fill the criteria of hate speech restrictions. Provide proof of your conclusion that animosity is reserved for Muslims, you won’t do it. You have hatred towards non Muslims also.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Yep the person was Hindu fanatic and that is the reason Muslim rioted and killed non Muslims. Please provide in the light of law how it was a sound decision. You are the one spreading misinformation. Petition was accepted under hate speech.
    How many non Muslims did that Hindi fanatic killed? What is your definition of a Hindu fanatic? If any one says truth he is fanatic. Taquiya at height.Recommend

  • Rizwan Liaqat

    “If the only downside to this is that certain members will misuse this freedom to hurt the feelings of others, then it must be taken as an unfortunate side effect.”

    You said it yourself, everything will offend someone in one way or the other. And when a group of 1.6 billion is routinely offended, an attack by 3 fanatics must also be taken as an unfortunate side effect.Recommend

  • wb

    There is no misinformation.

  • Haroon

    According to his own link there is a big misinformation.

    Sita Ram Goel was the leader of the petition and he was a Hindu nationalist. The Calcutta court threw the rediculous petition out and rightly so… The court was actually against it.Recommend

  • ab1990

    I am not a hindu. i am an atheist.Recommend

  • Haroon

    Look, the attempt to ban the Quran was clearly supported by Hindu extremists:

    “in 1986, after the first edition of the “Calcutta Quran Petition” was published, a Hindi poster by Indra Sain Sharma and Rajkumar Arya was published by the Hindu Raksha Dal, Delhi. Indra Sain Sharma was the president of the Hindu Raksha Dal and the Vice-President of the All India Hindu Mahasabha.”

    Even a petition against Modi was filed in a US court, the point is that the petition was rejected and thrown out meaning it has no more value! As noted:

    “The petition was however dismissed in May 1985.” and again

    “On June 18, 1985 Chandmal Chopra filed a review petition, which was dismissed on June 21.”

    This is the decision of the Calcutta court and what they say is legally the truth not you or the Quran-banning petitioners. Are the Calcutta judges secret Muslims too?Recommend

  • wb

    I didn’t say people, I said Muslims.

    Most people are smart. Most Muslims are not.

    This is not a bigoted, biased opinion. this is a fact. The GDP, the progress, the development in the muslim world is a testimony to this.

    ET, to censor is one thing, to distort, you absolutely have no right to put words in my mouth.

    This is disgusting.

    ET, you’re an example why Pakistan is a failed state. Unless you correct yourself, don’t expect 180 million failures to change.Recommend

  • Faulitics

    “Try making fun of pedophilia or the Holocaust in a western publication and see where it gets you”

    It won’t get you killed for sure like in the case of the cartoons.Recommend

  • Zee

    Surprised to read blog on advocation of freedom of expression / speech on ET which itself murdered the comments of its reader only if it is against its policy and everyone is aware what is the policy.

    To those who preach freedom of expression on the cost of hurting billion of Muslims, what if someone in the disguise of freedom of speech made nude cartoons of your mother / father and start selling it?

    There is a very fine line on freedom of speech i.e. it should not hurt others’ sentiments. That’s why you can’t challenge the holocaust theory in those part of the world who called themselves the champion of FOS.

    How ironic is that!!!!Recommend

  • Parvez

    In today’s world, KNOWING the limits of freedom is the true measure of a civilized society.Recommend

  • Ramchand

    Including Modi the religious head of Hindustan.Recommend

  • Salma

    Hello. Scientific facts are all written in a book called Nature. So follow the laws of nature. To do so, know them first. To know them, develop an enquiring critical mind. That is the greatest faculty that the God has given. If blind faith was enough, life would have stopped at protozoa or amoeba.Recommend

  • speed test

    give me some example for people kill, fought after reading Bhagavad GitaRecommend

  • abhi

    This totally shows your callousness. You are happy that these three fanatics killed 12 cartoonists. You don’t care for lives of either of the groups. I am pretty sure you are not going take risk of killing alleged blasphamers yourself unless you are in a mob, but you are pretty happy if some brainwashed young does it and screws his own life doing so.Recommend

  • Prashant

    It is impossible to agree on a definition of freedom of speech, if you are going to create a set of rules for what needs to be said and what not, you risk the chance of being another Saudi Arabia but at the same time if you do not contain it you will end up having people who might not resort to violence but encourage people of their community to hate others and hence creating an atmosphere where in terrorists are produced.

    As far as people not falling pray to these extreme ideologies is concerned, most do not but even a fraction of those who are convinced by this hatred of others is enough for them to bring disrepute to their community.

    Europe and especially the non Muslim world would become another Saudi Arabia if they conform to a set of rules to ensure different communities are not disrespected, religion is better not handled by the state and left to the individuals.Recommend

  • Please

    Do enlighten us with some of this infinite wisdom in your holy book. Do prove what you have to say with “the help of science”..?Recommend

  • Gopeet

    How can you allow this hate speech? This individual
    calls you moderators on the phone to print his comments?
    And you do it?

  • vinsin

    Petition was not rejected but accepted. It was done because of pressure from Muslims. What do you meant by Hindu Extremist? How many non muslims were killed by those hindu extremist? Calcutta judges were under pressure. Under Indian laws hate speech is banned and Quran comes under that and some one pointed that maybe even Gita will come under that.

    The Telegraph
    of May 9, 1985 reported that the Union Government would make itself a
    party in the case, and the Union law minister Ashoke Sen and the
    attorney-general of the Government of India were going to take action
    against the case

    Chandmal Chopra tried to obtain an order banning the Koran, by filing a Writ Petition at the Calcutta High Court on 29 March 1985. The petition claimed that Sections 153A and 295A of the Indian Penal Code, and Section 95 of the Criminal Procedure Code
    were often used by Muslims to ban or proscribe publications critical of
    Islam, and stated that “so far it had been the privilege of the Peoples of the Book to ban and burn the sacred literature of the Pagans.”.[3]
    Chandmal Chopra thought that the Koran “on grounds of religion promotes
    disharmony, feeling of enmity, hatred and ill-will between different
    religious communities and incite people to commit violence and disturb
    public tranquility…”[4]

    The petition by Chandmal Chopra also led to many riots in India and Bangladesh.

    The Statesman reported that “at least 12 people were killed and 100
    wounded all are poor Hindus” in a border town of Bangladesh during a
    demonstration of 1000 people.[12]
    In Dhaka, at least 20,000 Jamaat-i-Islami supporters demonstrated
    against the petition. The demonstrators were trying to storm the office
    of India’s High Commission.[13][14] Other riots followed in Kashmir and Bihar.[15]Recommend

  • vinsin

    Court was not against it but wanted to ban it. Petition was accepted it was when he refiled it was rejected. Why do you think that Satanic Verses are banned. You are talking as though you are not aware of hate speech in. Muslims in India are very quick in demanding special rights in laws and banning other religion.Recommend

  • vinsin

    Which modi are you talking about?
    if Narendra Modi then he is not religious head of any religion. He is current prime minister of India.Recommend

  • abhi

    very interesting take on things. Just for argument’s sake let us say another person just makes a cartoon (no nudity) of your mother/father and starts selling it will it be ok for you?Recommend

  • Sid

    Bravo, rightly put. Instead of preaching people on how to limit their freedom people should be taught on how to be more tolerant and learn how to respond in more composed manner rather than blowing things up.Recommend

  • Sid

    That limit has to be by choice and not implied or forced upon on.Recommend

  • Sid

    “Bhaktivedanta Swami’s translations “…..that says it all. Translation by mullahs and swamis are not to be 100% trusted or relied upon. For Hindus if they want to understand Bhagwad Gita, they better learn sanskrit to understand the true meaning. Same for Quran, muslims should and they do learn Arabic, but many just listens to preaching and sermons by mullahs.
    Can’t blame the books for translations by rotten few.Recommend

  • wb

    Look, I have not asked anyone to be killed or attacked. I have even given evidence for my assertion. So, how is this a hate speech?

    This is why I said, it is very difficult to make most Muslims understand the difference between hate speech and freedom of expression.Recommend


    AGREED !!!!!!!!Recommend


    WELL ARTICLE IS WELL PUT WHEN U ADVOCATING THE FREEDOM OF SPEECH, BUT I THINK WRITER SHOULD KEEP THE REFERENCE TO CONTEXT THAT WHY POPE SAY THIS SO, WITH REFERENCE TO THE WRITER “It is as futile as two men with opposing views trying to decide where an eagle they own is allowed to explore. While the first man prefers that their bird not be sent towards the mountains, the other prefers it not to fly into the woods. Each limitation is respectively important to each man, and each limitation limits the vital information the two can gain about their geographical surroundings.” SO PLZ TELL ME , IN WHICH FIELD OF UNIVERSE CHARLIE HEBDO TRYING TO GIVE THE VITAL INFORMATION IN THE SHAPE OF CARTOONS THAT SOMEONE MISS TO HAVE DUE TO SOMEONE’S LIMITATION??….I M ASKINGRecommend