The armed wing of the fashion police

Jacob Furedi

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Topics Free Speech

If you turn up to London Fashion Week wearing socks and sandals, you’ll be arrested by the fashion police. If you pop into Worcester’s Brewers Arms pub wearing an ‘offensive t-shirt’, you’ll be arrested by the West Mercia Police.

This is what happened to Paul Grange, who decided to pop in for a pint over the bank holiday weekend wearing a t-shirt bearing the slogan, ‘Hillsborough. God’s way of helping Rentokil’ – an unsubtle jibe at the 96 football fans who died at Hillsborough football stadium in 1989. An offended member of the public tweeted a photo of the t-shirt, and Grange was later charged with ‘displaying abusive writing’ by the police.

While Grange’s t-shirt was undoubtedly tasteless, this flagrant act of censorship should outrage us all. Feeling someone’s collar for wearing an offensive t-shirt is an affront to the absolute value of freedom of expression. Almost 18 months ago, when the offices of French magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked, the world responded with a unified shriek of disgust. The attackers threatened to undermine our notions of tolerance and freedom. And even though some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were offensive, we recognised that censoring them with such violence was a threat to our democratic way of life.

A year and half later, things have changed – we have substituted ‘Je Suis Charlie’ for ‘Je Suis Offended’. We have forgotten that free speech begins to crumble when it’s burdened with qualifications. If we are to maintain our commitment to the values of tolerance, democracy and freedom, there is no room for the right not to be offended.

Grange’s detainment reveals a pessimistic view of humanity. A spokesman for West Mercia Police explained that his arrest was necessary because the t-shirt was ‘likely to cause distress’. This seems like a fair assessment. The deaths of the 96 fans at Hillsborough were a tragedy, and making a mockery of their ordeal is likely to offend. But arresting someone to protect people from offence infantilises the public. It assumes that we are too vulnerable to deal with unpleasant opinions.

This degraded view of humanity has been mirrored in the media’s response to the incident. Countless newspapers and websites have decided that Grange’s t-shirt is too offensive for our innocent eyes, and have blurred out the words in photographs.

More offensive than Paul Grange’s t-shirt was the censorious reaction to it. Rather than helping infringe upon his right to freedom of expression, the offended party should have given him a good dressing-down and ordered another pint.

Jacob Furedi is a writer and student.

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Topics Free Speech

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