Freedom of speech is one of the core principles of any decent society. Nevertheless there are those who think it is under threat today, even in apparently free societies like the UK’s. Nick Cohen’s superb new polemic You Can’t Read this Book makes this very case. Cohen quite rightly expends plenty of ink attending to censorship in authoritarian and tyrannical societies, but the book is just as interesting when he turns to free speech in western societies.
There are, contrary to what many people think, plenty of people arguing for the curtailment of free speech in the West, and their arguments come from many different perspectives. Many liberals and leftists want to curb the free speech of the press in the wake of the phone hacking scandal; many conservatives in the US want to see Julian Assange on trial for publishing confidential state department material; many wealthy individuals and companies are very happy with the UK’s very strict libel laws; and many religious people would like to see the law against blasphemy reinstated. Often such arguments are expressed in terms of protecting a conflicting value, such as national security or the right to privacy. I tend to the side of free speech in such debates, but rather than defend it in each instance, I want to briefly explore three particular impediments free speech advocates have to confront before the debate can even get started.
The first of which is that free speech just does not feel like it is under threat because most people, actually, can say what they want. When we think about censorship our minds turn to 1984 and totalitarian societies where one can be thrown in jail or worse for criticising the powerful. Such societies are in stark contrast to our own where we can call Tony Blair a war criminal or the Pope a bigot with gay abandon. We rarely find ourselves in situations where it is dangerous or illegal to say something, so we do not have to think about the situations in which it is. But this does not warrant complacency because the true test of free speech is that everyone, and particularly those at the margins, are able to say what they want. As is usually the case with free speech, John Stuart Mill said it best: ‘If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he would be in silencing mankind’.
The second impediment is that we are often not aware of examples of curtailments to free speech because we cannot talk about those examples. We never know there has been a super-injunction placed upon, for instance, talking about a footballer’s infidelity until it has been broken or lifted. And the same goes for the much more serious instances in which a corporation has done something scandalous. Consider the commodity trader Trafigura, who in 2006 dumped toxic waste in the Ivory Coast causing, according to the county’s government, the death of 17 people and injury to over 30,000. In October 2009 the Labour MP Paul Farrelly, using his parliamentary privilege, asked a question about the issue in parliament, but because Trafigura were granted a super-injunction, newspapers were not allowed to report it, and could only do so when the injunction was eventually lifted. It is possible that there are many other similar examples, but we do not, and cannot, know about them because injunctions prevent them from being reported. This means that free speech advocates are denied access to important evidence for their case.
Our strict libel laws can lead to a similar problem. There could be countless examples of personal misconduct and corporate iniquity that are not being reported for fear of libel, and because we cannot talk about them, free speech advocates lack important evidence which could be used to combat those very laws.
A further impediment to advocating for free speech is that often one is defending trash. A case in point is the youtube film Innocence of Muslims, which is thought to have been a contributing factor to the recent riots in Benghazi that led to the death of two American diplomats. The film is a piece of bigoted nonsense, and yet if we are to stand up for free speech, we have to say that even bigoted nonsense should be protected. More recently Julie Burchill wrote an incendiary column for the Observer that deeply offended the transgender community; many people, including government minister Lynne Featherstone, called for Burchill to be sacked. Defending her speech leaves free-speech advocates in the difficult position of first conceding ‘yes we know what Burchill wrote is horrible’, before going on to say ‘but she should be allowed to say it anyway’. The famous statement often (mis)attributed to Voltaire – ‘I disapprove of what you have to say, but I defend to the death your right to say it’ – remains a powerful and moving defence of free speech, but it has been traduced by a million Julie Burchills.
So how should free speech advocates respond to these impediments? Well, the only and best way we can: more speech!