Ever since Socrates was put to death for talking out of turn in ancient Athens, the struggle for freedom of expression has been at the centre of Western life. But the battlelines and the enemies of free speech have shifted many times down the centuries.
The historic right to free speech can never be assumed. It has always to be defended against new challenges. The events of 2013 have shown once more that, while the principles we are fighting for remain much the same, the free speech wars of today are different from those in the past.
The past year’s rows and debates about freedom of expression and of the press in the UK have been distinguished by two things, neither of which is good. In the past, free speech in Britain was a hard-fought liberty for which people were prepared to struggle and to go to jail, the Tower or even the gallows. In 2013, by contrast, the right to freedom of expression has often seemed to be casually sacrificed, given away without a fight by those who insist that they believe in free speech, ‘But…’. The danger becomes not censorship, but a self-censored climate of stifling conformism.
The second difference today follows from the first. Once in Britain, those who considered themselves as radicals or supporters of progress and social change were in the forefront of the fight for free speech, battling against state censorship and repression. Today, such set-piece confrontations – such as the ruckus between the government and the Guardian over the publication of security leaks – seem like rare echoes of the past.
More often in 2013, those who consider themselves to be liberal-minded or on the left have been in the forefront of attempts to restrict freedom of expression. The primary threat to free speech in the UK and the West does not come from jackboots and right-wing book-burners. It comes more from fears about what harm unbridled free speech might do, expressed through the contemporary culture of You-Can’t-Say-That, which is now spreading everywhere from the university campus to the football ground.