WE don’t have to sacrifice human rights in the name of free speech. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s true! I have been invited to participate in a panel discussion organised by the RSA later this week, focusing on the topic of freedom of speech.

Initially, I was so enthusiastic and readily accepted the invitation.

But soon, as I thought about what clever points I was going to make, a sense of unease crept in, making me contemplate cancelling my participation.In recent years, the debate surrounding freedom of speech has become increasingly volatile and divisive, both in Scotland and France. It has taken on such a contentious and sometimes violent nature that I wanted to distance myself from it.

That was also because for me, it was rather straightforward: our freedoms should only extend to the point where they don’t infringe upon the freedom of others. Freedom of expression should always come with an awareness of the consequences of our words.

READ MORE: Freedom of speech doesn't give anyone the right to abuse others

Consequently, promoting hate cannot be classified as free speech. Advocating for free speech as a democratic ideal without recognising its limits and taking responsibility cannot lead to a just and inclusive society. It’s as simple as that!

In the UK, the debate predominantly centres around gender issues, while in France, it revolves more around religions, particularly Islam, which has become a focal point of intense discussions. This has sparked broader conversations about the principle of laïcité, established as law in 1905. Laïcité, often misunderstood both at home and abroad, is a form of secularism deeply rooted in France’s history and identity.

It isn’t a form of state atheism or the outlawing of religion. Rather, it’s about the right to believe or not believe while keeping the state neutral on religion. For example, no French president can be sworn in on a holy book, and marriages celebrated only in places of worship aren’t legally recognised.

Its aim is to safeguard private religious beliefs while ensuring that public matters remain uninfluenced by any religion. Laïcité is essentially about respecting freedom of thought, so any discussion of this principle inevitably leads to discussions about freedom of speech.

A tragic event that reignited the freedom of speech debates was the January 2015 attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris. You’ve likely seen some of their controversial front pages and unique humour. Opinions on them vary widely. Unfortunately, they became the target of a deadly attack that claimed the lives of 12 of their staff members.

This event traumatised the nation and sparked intense debates about freedom of speech, symbolised by the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). However, this debate often oversimplified matters, obscuring the nuances that existed among people’s views. Many people supported the press’s right to question, caricature, and mock but also expressed their dislike for the content and chose not to support it financially.

This simplified approach to debating freedom of expression is where I have my frustrations. I feel that in recent times, both in France and Scotland, we’ve lost sight of nuance. It hasn’t been particularly insightful, and honestly, it’s been disappointing.

Let’s look at another controversy from recent years. In 2020, a 16-year-old teenager named Mila became the target of a violent hate campaign after posting a highly critical video about Islam, using offensive language and shocking imagery. This followed online abuse she received from a Muslim man whose advances she rejected.

The hate campaign escalated to the point where she had to leave school and live under constant police protection due to death and rape threats.

Mila quickly became a symbol for freedom of expression, with politicians and commentators weighing in on the matter for weeks. Some praised her courage, while others condemned the cyberharassment but also criticised her lack of respect.

READ MORE: 'Scotland to Europe ferry a necessity for Scottish economy'

The debate shifted to whether there should be an obligation to consider other people’s experiences, beliefs, and feelings and to express oneself in a thoughtful and enlightened manner.

She had the right to say what she did, as confirmed by the courts, and nothing could possibly justify the months of intimidation she had to endure.

Even if her words deeply offended you, there’s not much to be done except to exercise your own freedom of speech in a way that is appropriate. That seems like common sense to me. However, it is crucial to question whether elevating her example as the ultimate metric for measuring freedom of expression is the right approach. We need to examine this belief more closely.

One thing I am certain of is that I don’t want polarising discussions to continue in such inflammatory ways. We need a bit more empathy, respect, and decency – fraternity, which is the third word in the French national motto: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.

Does this mean that I want all forms of caricature, satire, or harsh criticism to vanish, giving way to hypermeasured, bland discourse? Absolutely not! We need diversity of expression for our collective sanity. But I also think it is perfectly acceptable to uphold the value of free speech without endorsing every individual expression of it.

I take issue when freedom of speech is used as a license to humiliate, denigrate, and perpetuate suspicion and disgust towards certain groups. Freedom of expression has too often become a political weapon, especially on the right and far-right.

They argue that there is a “marketplace of ideas” where anything, even the vilest thing, can be sold as long as someone is willing to buy it. But this metaphor also implies that, like any market, the marketplace of ideas is shaped by imbalances.

This is especially true in the age of social media. Can we truly trust algorithms on social media platforms to create a fair and free marketplace of ideas?

Ironically, those who hold these views often refuse to acknowledge that there is no free speech argument guaranteeing any individual the right to express their views on a specific platform. Such a “right” would be ludicrous to suggest.

If it existed, I could demand to have my opinions featured on the front page of the biggest-selling newspapers and cry foul if, unsurprisingly, I was shown the door.

READ MORE: Angela Rayner blanks demands for devolution of employment law

What does exist is a general right to express oneself in public discourse, relatively free from regulation, as long as one’s speech doesn’t harm others.

As Voltaire (or rather, his biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall) famously said: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

However, he also noted, “Tolerance has never provoked a civil war; intolerance has covered the Earth in carnage.”

To uphold the legitimacy of freedom of speech in a democratic society, we must stop using it as a blanket justification for any behaviour. It may sound simple, but recent years have shown the need for more civil and less confrontational conversations.

The constant heated discourse is draining and alienating people. If we fail to address this issue, we cannot truly function as a mature and functional democracy.