spiked plans to make 2014 the year when freedom of speech comes back into fashion. We want to make the right to think, say, believe, write, publish, depict and argue whatever we choose into the great cause of the coming year.
For too long, that right, once considered the bedrock of any society claiming to be democratic, has been stymied, even suffocated. It’s been done in, not only by state-enforced laws restricting everything from offensive jokes to the ‘glorification of terrorism’, but also by more informal campaigns designed to make people conform to the ‘right’ way of thinking about the burning issues of our time.
In recent years, too many in the Western world, which advertises itself as free and open-minded, have watched as tabloid hacks have been rounded up and thrown in jail; as Christian firebrands have been arrested for preaching about ‘sexual sin’; as the questioning of historical conflicts has been rebranded ‘genocide denial’ and made a punishable offence; as students have burned newspapers containing articles that offend them; as comedians have been banned on the basis that they ‘incite hatred’; as unfashionable opinions on everything from the environment to the EU have been labelled ‘denial’ or ‘phobias’ and cast out of polite society; as football fans have been arrested for singing offensive songs or making crude chants…
Western society, even as it occasionally hectors foreign nations for failing to be free and democratic, has become alarmingly cavalier about freedom of speech. We now treat it less as an absolute freedom that must, by definition, extend to all, and more as a negotiable commodity that will be given to some (the good) and withheld from others (the bad and the ugly). Free speech now comes with far too many buts, ifs and restrictions attached. ‘I believe in free speech, but not for racists…’; ‘You can have free speech if you promise to use it responsibly…’; or consider the biggest but of all, in the European Convention on Human Rights, which says ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression’ and then in the next breath says this right ‘may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law’. So actually, everyone doesn’t have the right to freedom of expression.
This watering down of freedom of speech is bad news, because freedom of speech is the freedom upon which every other right we enjoy is built. The right to vote, the right to protest, the right to political organisation, artistic rights, press freedom… none of those rights is safe if their father, freedom of speech, is not kept in good condition. The freedom to speak our minds, express our beliefs and publish our thoughts is the foundational freedom that allows us to be properly autonomous, engaged, enlightened citizens. Without it, we are reduced to charges of the state and expert cliques, who take it upon themselves to decide what we may know and, by extension, what we may think.