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Wednesday 17 July 2019

Tortoise Take • Opinion

Plain speaking

Free speech isn’t just for right-wing, white men. We all need to discuss its parameters in the 21st Century

By Matthew d’Ancona

All too often, the right to free speech is invoked in desperation by those who have violated the very legal order upon which all such rights depend. A case in point: last week, the British far-right extremist and social-media provocateur Tommy Robinson, was sentenced to nine months in prison for contempt of court. Robinson postures as a martyr to free expression and an oppressed “journalist”.

But this is nonsense. His live-streaming of defendants arriving at a sexual exploitation trial in 2018 was a straightforward breach of a reporting ban. Robinson’s actions clearly imperilled sensitive legal proceedings, an undoubted breach of the Contempt of Court Act 1981. Such criminal idiocy has nothing to do with free speech.

Yet the collateral damage of such posturing is real. As Jodie Ginsberg, chief executive of Index on Censorship, told Tortoise in May: “It is having a hugely damaging effect on freedom of expression because it sends the message that free speech is only for privileged white men, rather than a universal value that benefits all, and in particular minority and progressive groups.”

In this context, it is unsettling that the young no longer seem to regard free speech as a political priority – in marked contrast to, say, the Berkeley University activists of the mid-Sixties, those who marched against Apartheid, or the Western supporters of imprisoned dissidents in the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

More alarming still is the fashionable nonsense that speech can be violence: not, please note, the cause of violence (as in, for instance, incitement to racial harassment or disorder) but, in and of itself, a form of violence. This specious claim – which has no respectable neuroscientific basis – has been cited by the US Antifa movement as grounds for pre-emptive physical attack on speakers to whom they object.

It is clearly time to press the reset button in this increasingly decadent debate, and to banish the notion that free speech is a marginal issue. For a start, it is sobering to reflect upon the number of journalists around the world who were assaulted, imprisoned or killed during 2018:

This is absolutely not the time to be complacent about a core civil right that is a foundation stone of liberal democracy and the most effective engine of social progress ever invented by humanity.

History teaches that it is always the disenfranchised, the vilified and the vulnerable who have most to lose when the right to free speech is endangered. Left-of-centre intellectuals are fleeing Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil in fear of persecution. Look at the American Library Association’s list of books that faced bans in 2018: five of the top ten had LGBT+ themes.

In July, President Trump made chillingly clear his own interpretation of the First Amendment:

“I don’t think that the mainstream media is free speech, because it’s so crooked, it’s dishonest. Free speech is not when you see something good and then you purposely write bad, to me that’s very dangerous speech, and you become angry at it, but it’s not free speech.”

The reinvigoration of free speech as a core democratic value will require some difficult conversations. These are the basic principles from which we would begin:

1. Other than a fringe of demented libertarians, nobody argues for an absolute right to free speech. All orderly societies constrain certain categories of language: defamation, libel, incitement to violence, content that endangers national security, and so on. What matters is where our collective predisposition lies. Is our default position that all speech is permissible unless there is an overwhelming, legally-defensible reason to ban it? And if not, why not?

2. It is important to spell out that there is a difference between desirable civility – a sound objective of any pluralist society – and the right not to be offended. There is no such right, and never can be. In a free society, no system of thought – including religious ideas – can be immune from scrutiny.

3. Four years have passed since the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in which 12 journalists at the satirical magazine were slaughtered by Islamist terrorists. Since then, there has been a lively debate about the proper limits of humour. What should never be forgotten is that satire itself is never the cause of violence; it is gunmen carrying assault rifles who are solely responsible for that.

Top Row (L-R): Bernard Maris; Georges Wolinski; Jean Cabut, aka Cabu; Charb; Tignous; Honoré (Philippe Honoré). Bottom Row: Michel Renaud, Ahmed-Merabet (police), Mustapha Ourrad, Elsa Cayat, Franck Brinsolaro (police), Frederic Boisseau

4. The increasingly popular dictum that we should all “stay in our lane” – only speaking about things of which we have direct “lived experience” – is also a non-starter in a diverse, multi-cultural society. A white man, it is true, cannot ever know what it is like to be a woman of colour. But that basic epistemological fact cannot be a prohibition that effectively confines us all to tiny speech bubbles. The very essence of pluralism is the discussion of everything by everybody.

To add to the urgency of the matter, a vast new front is opening up, as the profound consequences of the digital revolution for language and discourse become rapidly apparent. Sooner rather than later, democratic societies will need rafts of legislation and regulations that set new parameters for all forms of digital content.

As we enter this intellectually and socially testing terrain, it is all the more important that we do so on the basis of sound first principles – and remember John Stuart Mill’s warning that the right to free speech is needed not by the few but by “mankind in general”.