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EHRC chair - 'No right not to be offended' over matters of religion

EHRC chair - 'No right not to be offended' over matters of religion


Says those who kill others or themselves ‘are not martyrs’ at Theos Annual Lecture 2015

The chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has spoken out over controversies such as the Charlie Hebdo attacks or universities who banned ‘transphobic’ speakers, saying that there is no way of securing freedom of expression if society supports a right not to be offended.

Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve said instead that speech acts over belief or religion that were offensive should only be prohibited if they transgressed other laws such as defamation or incitement to hatred as well.

“Any supposed right not to be offended would founder on the fact that offensiveness is subjective, and would put others’ freedom of expression wholly at the mercy of the sensibilities of possible audiences, including audiences who may include some who are hypersensitive, paranoid or self-serving - or worse,” she said.

Baroness O’Neill was giving the Theos Annual Lecture 2015 on 19 October in London in front of 200 politicians, policy makers, faith leaders and journalists.

Speaking about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January of this year and the Danish cartoons before that, the baroness said that it had been claimed that those who drew or published the cartoons had no right to do so because it was deeply offensive, and that some even argued direct action was justifiable because of the offence.

She however said that those who described themselves as ‘martyrs’ for taking violent action against those whom they considered had offended their faith were wrong:

“Killing a person whose speech offends and oneself (e.g. by suicide bombing) is not martyrdom: it may be murder and is certainly suicide,” she said. “Martyrdom is a matter of suffering for one’s beliefs, or being killed for one’s beliefs - and there are good reasons to use the term correctly and carefully... The noble army of martyrs must be turning in their graves as they read some current religious, political and journalistic uses of the term.”

The baroness suggested that there must be more engagement between those who offend and those who feel offended to try to educate those who caused such deep affront whether intentional or not. She praised the classicist Mary Beard who had tracked down and spoken to someone who had trolled the academic online as providing “a model way of dealing with offensive speech”.

Elizabeth Oldfield, Director of Theos said: “Baroness O’Neill’s lecture was a timely reminder of the need to maintain freedom of religion in and of itself – she was clear that subsuming it into other existing rights is likely to ‘have costs and rouse many fears’.

“We also welcome her suggestion that further legislation is needed to clarify what a religion or belief actually entails. The current situation is deeply ambiguous with opposition to foxhunting recognised as a belief but not support for it.”

Notes to editors:

1. For more information please contact Glenda Cooper on 07736 481017 or via To contact Baroness O’Neill please contact Ben Wilson, EHRC on 07809 659680.

2. The text of the Theos Annual Lecture 2015 can be found here.

3. Baroness O’Neill of Bengarve is the eighth person to deliver the Annual Theos lecture on religion and contemporary society following Will Hutton, principal of Hertford College, Oxford; Marilynne Robinson, the Pulitzer-prize winning novelist; former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams; Lord Dannatt, former chief of the General Staff; Mark Thompson, Director-General of the BBC; Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; and Baron Blair of Boughton, former Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police.  Baroness O’Neill is a noted philosopher, cross-bench member of the House of Lords, and Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

4. The Theos annual lecture was held at The Honourable Society of Inner Temple, London on Monday 19th October. It was attended by 200 politicians, policy makers, faith leaders and journalists.

5. Theos is a religion and society think tank, which offers research and commentary on issues of faith and belief. It was launched in November 2006 with the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, and the former Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor.

Posted 20 October 2015

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