The awful truth about free speech
Time to stop paying lip service to the principle and take a stand in practice.
Almost everybody in Western society with more than two brain cells to rub together supports freedom of speech. Or so they say.
Blasphemers might be sentenced to death in Islamic states, and the internet might be censored to death in China. But in the UK, US and elsewhere in the West, we still enjoy freedom of expression. Or so we think.
So how is it then that, everywhere from Twitter to television, from the theatrical stage to the football stand, in student bars and in serious debates, free speech is under siege? It seems that our hard-won historic liberty is often being given up without a serious fight, and even offered up for sacrifice.
This glaring gap between the apparently widespread support for free speech in principle, and the evident lack of it in practice, is what prompted me to start my forthcoming book on the new free-speech wars. It is clear that many who claim to support it are only paying lip service to the principle. In reality what they support is not free speech but speech on parole, let out on licence as long as it promises to stick to their idea of the straight and narrow.
It’s time to cut through the posturing and sort the genuine supporters of free speech from the pretenders who would rather restrict the right to people like them. Perhaps we could try a quick test in relation to recent debates and controversies.
For example, do those of you who claim to support it agree that free speech means:
- Yes, you should be able to suggest that not all rapes are the same, or that convicted rapists might get their job back after jail, without being hounded as a woman-hating rape-denier. And yes, you should be free to screech online at a celebrity who does suggest that without being threatened with two years in jail.
- No, it should not be a criminal offence punishable by prison to tweet offensive verbal abuse at Labour MPs, UKIP members, feminist campaigners, footballers, Andy Murray, Her Majesty the Queen or even the parents of Madeleine McCann.
- Yes, the puerile ‘rugger buggers’ at UK universities should be left to snigger at their ‘laddish’ leaflets for freshers’ week without having their rugby club disbanded, or to sing a charmless necrophiliac rugby song without being fined £150 each.
- No, academics should not be disciplined or sacked for expressing political views. And no, academics should not be boycotted for being Israeli or anything else.
- No, the UK’s secret police should not be able to spy on newspapers’ phone records to hunt down ‘public-interest whistle-blowers’. And neither should the law be empowered to hunt down those who chant, post or sing things regarding football that are not in the ‘public interest’ at all.
- Yes, politicians should be allowed to say what they actually think – whether it’s a Tory minister making a stupid remark about towns being ‘swamped’ by immigrants, or a thick Lib Dem MP fantasising about firing rockets from Gaza – without being forced to backtrack and apologise. And no, those same politicians should have no power to interfere in the freedom of the press.
- Yes, you should be able to call any religion a homophobic hate creed. And yes, you should be free to condemn homosexuality as a sin.
- No, you should not have the ‘right to be forgotten’ or to rewrite history online. And no, Islamist losers should not be martyred for protesting against Remembrance Day.
- No, public figures should not be publically lynched for the offensive contents of their private emails, text messages or phone calls – effectively, their private thoughts. And yes, we should always be free to think what we like and say what we think (if we choose to).
- No, the right to free speech should never mean a free ride. Yes, others must be equally free to tell you exactly what they think of your expressed opinions.
Defending unfettered free speech is not a question of endorsing whatever objectionable and offensive things are written or said today. It means championing freedom of expression as our most precious liberty, without which no other would be possible. It also means recognising that free speech is for fools, fanatics and the other fellows, too, an indivisible right that we defend for all or none at all. It is much too important to pay lip service to. Far better for those who disagree to come clean, admit that they don’t support free speech, and let the real debate begin. (Of course, they must be free to use the right to free speech in order to argue for its restriction…)
The awful truth is that a world in which we enjoy free speech is one filled with ugly, difficult and hurtful ideas as well their opposites. But the alternative to free speech is inevitably worse. That is why free speech is always a price worth paying.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. His book, There is No Such Thing as a Free Press… And We Need One More Than Ever, is published by Societas. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his website here.
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