Earlier this month 12 people died at the French satirical magazine when two masked gunmen opened fire on them. The gunmen were offended by the cartoon drawing of Muhammed the prophet.

The magazine felt they had the right to do the drawings of Muhammed however the gunmen felt they had the right to defend their faith.

This incident is seen as an attack against freedom itself and an act by extremists.

In the early part of 2014, a political figure tweeted a cartoon about Muhammed and prompted death threats.

Human Rights Act 1998

Article 9: You have the right to freedom of thought conscience and religion which protects not only ideas that are favourably received, but also expression of ideas that would be regarded as offensive to all or a sector of the population.  

Article 10: Freedom of expression 

You have the right to hold your own opinions and to express them freely without government interference.

This includes the right to express your views aloud or through published articles, books or leaflets, television or radio broadcasting, works of art, communication on the internet.

Although you have the freedom to express your views and beliefs, you have a duty to behave responsibly and to respect other people’s rights.

It may be permissible to restrict your freedom of expression if, for example, you express views that encourage racial or religious hatred.

S4 Equality Act 2010 protects against discrimination on the grounds of various protected characteristics including religion, religion or belief which means philosophical belief. Workers are also protected against discrimination if they do not hold a particular (or any) religion or belief.

In the case Eweida v United Kingdom [2013] wearing an item, such as a cross (not a health and safety risk in the particular case) may offend others. Although wearing a cross was not a duty of a Christian, it was something intimately linked to religion for the claimant, and something which she should not have been stopped from doing.

In Smith v Trafford Housing Trust [2012] The High Court has held that a Christian employee was entitled to express his views about gay marriage on Facebook and that doing so did not constitute misconduct. His employer acted unlawfully when it demoted him, purporting to rely on contractual provisions in the code of conduct and equal opportunities policy which prohibited bringing the employer into disrepute and causing offence to colleagues. It was clear, from the employee's Facebook page, that he was not using the medium for work-related purposes, despite the fact that many of his Facebook friends were colleagues. 

While the court acknowledged that his comments had caused particular offence to an employee with different views, this was held to be a necessary price to be paid for freedom of speech.

One author argues that, in light of the recent attack, we do not have the right to intentionally offend others.  Everyone has the right to freedom of expression but at the same time everyone has the right to be offended at what has been said. Free speech promotes tolerance, acceptance and constructive debate. 

One individual said that ‘There are always limits to free speech especially when it comes to ridiculing others’ faith’.

Since freedom of speech is so cherished, is it our right to offend another person in the workplace? 

Essentially nobody enjoys being offended, whether in private or in public. If you offend, there will always be consequences that one will have to face and the same applies in the workplace.

Using bad language can be offensive to some people. If the subjects are your religion, gender, sexuality or colour you have the law on your side. If you are being teased for which football team you support, what county you come from or your hobbies, it probably depends on how harsh the comments are as to whether protection from harassment legislation comes into play. When you offend in the work place or are offended by something that has been said, if it is not dealt with quickly and efficiently this may lead to one bringing a grievance and depending on how serious the claim is, could lead to a disciplinary or even dismissal. This can be time consuming. 

Having formal grievance procedures in place allows employers to give reasonable consideration to any issues which cannot be resolved informally and to deal with them fairly and consistently. 

If a manager offends an employee, or acquiesces in an employee being offended, even where that does not relate to a human right or protected characteristic, unless an employee is particularly sensitive, then there may be a breach of the obligation of trust and confidence.

Everyone wants to have a harmony in the workplace, but there are times when it will be impossible not to offend, as everyone has different views, whether it is political, religious or otherwise, and we may have to agree to disagree. So do we have a right to offend? We do not have the right to intentionally offend others where that discriminates against them on the basis of a protected characteristic, infringes the Human Rights Act in the case of public or quasi public sector employments or in the case of an employer where that breaches the obligation of trust and confidence.