Freedom of speech and media silence on the request for an apology following offensive comments about vegans

by Dr Jeanette Rowley

In the news this week, Veganuary organisers report on their website that Channel 4 posted a message on Instagram in which it referred to the 165,000 people taking part in Veganuary as ‘asswipes’. Following the offensive post, vegans responded, expressing their outrage and explaining that the Equality Act 2010 protects vegans on the grounds of sincerely held beliefs.  Veganuary report that Channel 4 eventually deleted the offensive post but that no apology was received. Journalist George Martin also reports that at the time of writing his news item, sometime later, I news had not received a comment from Channel 4. This situation is familiar. A few weeks ago, the BBC also failed to provide an apology to vegans who were offended by its broadcasters on two consecutive shows, despite being notified after the first show that offence had been caused.

Vegans complained to the BBC in terms of ‘offensive jokes’, Veganuary refers to the offence caused as ‘hate speech’. In both cases, the intention was to ridicule and undermine the serious and cogent ethical views of people who speak for the rights of nonhuman animals and, in the case of Veganuary, those who are taking on the tremendous challenge, this month, of extracting themselves from a powerful, dominant regime of entrenched permissible cruelty toward nonhuman sentient life*.

Vegans are correct to state that their complaints about unfair treatment can be grounded in law. It has become quite well-known now that veganism qualifies under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights because it is a cogent and serious belief.  The right to live according to their sincerely held moral convictions is a right that vegans can cite in the face of unlawful interference, unfair treatment and discrimination. On the grounds of the right to live according to conscience, vegans have a paradoxical foothold in justice that gives effect to the rights of nonhuman animals. The protection of vegans in law means that human rights and equality measures contribute to the dismantling of speciesist prejudice. However, law protects people, not beliefs, and the Article 10 right to free expression is also of great significance. The right to freedom of expression is regarded to be the bedrock of a democratic society.

Source: Metro

Under the right to freedom of expression, everyone has the right to express opinions freely, without interference, subject to (among others) what is prescribed by law for the purposes of a democratic society, what is required for public safety, health or morals and the protection of others. Laws that limit the right to freedom of expression include the law of defamation which protects people from slander and libel, laws that limit obscene freedom of expression, incitement of crime, racial hatred and the use of speech to bring about disorder. All of these laws permit interference with the right to freedom of expression because they protect the rights of others. But what are the general principles grounding the attempt to balance what can be seen as two competing rights: the right to freedom of conscience and the right to free expression? An insight into the answer to this question was given around four decades ago, in the case of Handyside v the UK, when the Commission (as it was then) of the European Court of Human Rights said:

Freedom of expression constitutes one of the essential foundations of such a society, one of the basic conditions for its progress and for the development of every man. Subject to paragraph 2 of Article 10 (art. 10-2), it is applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State or any sector of the population(emphasis added). Such are the demands of that pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no “democratic society”. This means, amongst other things, that every “formality”, “condition”, “restriction” or “penalty” imposed in this sphere must be proportionate to the legitimate aim pursued.

So, on the basis of the scope of freedom of expression, should vegans expect to endure robust provocation? Again, we should keep in mind that law protects people, not beliefs. In international human rights law there is no hierarchy of protected beliefs of conscience. No religious or non-religious belief reigns supreme and all can be subject to lawful critical comment and analysis in the interests of democracy, broadmindedness and pluralism.  That said, freedom of speech does not give people the right to defame others or insult believers or their beliefs, and the Article 10 right to freedom of expression includes a warning that this right ‘carries with it duties and responsibilities’. Again, the case of Handyside gives some indication of how to interpret this caution:

whoever exercises his freedom of expression undertakes “duties and responsibilities” the scope of which depends on his situation and the technical means he uses. The Court cannot overlook such a person’s “duties” and “responsibilities” when it enquires, as in this case, whether “restrictions” or “penalties” were conducive to the “protection of morals” which made them “necessary” in a “democratic society”.

On the basis of the above, what is acceptable will depend on what is said, the context in which it is said, how it is said and the effect it produces. In addition, national governments have, what is known as, a ‘margin of appreciation’ to decide whether, and how, to protect competing convictions and beliefs. What this means is that the governments assess the current social and political conditions in their countries to determine how best to comply with and implement international and European law. In addition, each case is to be decided on its own merits.

What is important to consider from the comments made in the Handyside case is that the duties and responsibilities of people exercising their right to free expression include being aware of the relationship between their status, position, power and the situation of the people that may be offended. In this regard, the complaints of vegans against very popular entertainment presenters and big corporate institutions, such as the BBC and Channel 4, have some weight. Both organisations and their presenters have an enormous reach and following, and both have a duty to carefully consider the impact of what they say resulting from their status and their privilege to reach many thousands of people in seconds. In both situations, vegan complainants merely sought an apology, not legal action but, in both, none was received.

The silence, from the BBC and Channel 4, in response to a request for an apology for the upset caused to vegans, is a measure of oppression of nonhuman animals and their exclusion from the conscience of the dominant society and the interests it allows to stand as valid and legitimate. Media broadcasting companies and their presenters would do well to understand more about the effects of a dominant prejudicial society in which minorities, including vegans and transitioning vegans, go about their lives.

They should consider that the effect of exercising unmoderated freedom of speech may amplify the imbalance of power and create additional obstacles for those who are interested to learn and understand more about veganism. Making degrading jokes, telling listeners to avoid having vegan friends and calling vegans degrading names causes harm because it sullies nonhuman life, potentially influences thousands of people and, quite likely, contributes to the perpetuation of a culture of violence toward the most vulnerable who are excluded from our system of justice and cannot fight back on human terms. This is why vegans are upset and offended, and each complaint against offensive comments that emerge from an assumed unlimited right to freely express, attempts to counter an attack on defenceless, sentient nonhuman animals and the view that they are worthless. This is the context in which vegans contest the antagonists’ right to free speech and do so in the interests of broadmindedness, democratic society and what is ‘proportional’ in the circumstances.

Some of the important principles of human rights law are recognised in the UK Equality Act 2010. From the outset, the target of this Act was to make equality part of everyday business for everyone and, importantly, ‘speak’ to everyone. It includes a broad area of discrimination known as ‘Harassment’ which is defined as unwanted behaviour which you find offensive or which makes you feel intimidated or humiliated. Harassment can happen on its own or alongside other forms of discrimination. Unwanted behaviour can be spoken or written words of abuse, offensive emails, tweets or comments on social networking sites, images and graffiti, physical gestures, facial expressions and jokes. Freedom of expression may continue to be abused by those who wish to continue to degrade nonhuman life and marginalise veganism but it would be no surprise to see this provision help vegans achieve a stronger foothold for nonhuman animals to feature more prominently in human justice.

*Veganuary also supports transitioning vegans who are concerned with other issues, such as caring about the environment.