In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Freedom of Speech

One of the most fundamental assumptions of Western liberal societies is that individuals have the right to freedom of speech, that is, the government may not inhibit the dissemination of ideas and convictions. In the United States of America, this right is heavily protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which states unequivocally that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Britain does not have a codified constitution, but the idea that the government should not have the power to censor its citizens has its foundation within the Enlightenment, and was articulated by multiple Scottish and English philosophers. An example of this enunciation is John Stuart Mill’s essay On Liberty, first published in 1859.

However, there have been a number of recent cases in Britain recently that demonstrate that freedom of speech is under grave threat. In May 2010, Paul Chambers was prosecuted for sending the following tweet, which was determined to be ‘menacing’:

Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!

This conviction was later overturned in an appeal, after Mr Chambers argued that his communication represented a joke.

Liam Stacey, a 21 year-old student attending Swansea University, was convicted in March 2012 to 56 days in prison for sending a “extremely racist” tweet about Fabrice Muamba, a football player who had collapsed on the pitch. Azhar Ahmed was given a community order of 240 hours and a fine of £300 for posting on Facebook that “All soldiers should die and go to hell!”

Matthew Woods was sentenced by Chorley Magistrates’ Court to 12 weeks in jail for making jokes on Facebook about the missing child April Jones, as well making references to Madeleine McCann, including:

I woke up this morning in the back of a transit van with two beautiful little girls, I found April in a hopeless place.

After Mr Woods made these Facebook posts, a “vigilante mob” of about 50 people turned up at his house, and Mr Woods was arrested for his own safety. Given the chairman of the Magistrates’ Court, Mr Hudson, said that:

The reason for the sentence is the seriousness of the offense, the public outrage that has been caused and we felt there was no other sentence this court could have passed which conveys to you the abhorrence that many in society feel this crime should receive.

It appears that the “vigilante mob”, instead of being arrested for menacing Mr Woods, was actually used as evidence against Mr Woods, or at least, is responsible for the severity of his sentence. This is literally mob justice.

Freedom of speech is an absolute: either you believe in it or you do not. If you do not, then you believe that the government should ban particular types of speech. By creating a list of ‘unacceptable speech’, the government must necessarily create the category of ‘acceptable speech’. The establishment of this acceptable list means that the government gives tacit support for speech filling that category. The calls for restricting even more speech inexorably grow, such as recent sirens for an international ban on the public mockery of religion, as each vested group demands its own special protection.

Also, a system of limited speech may not automatically allow citizens to articulate why that system is wrong, and may leave them unable to publish why that particular system should be abandoned. Alternately, only the system of free speech allows citizens to express why they believe freedom of speech is erroneous. However, only free speech allows all citizens to put forward their views and convictions, without fear of censorship. The ability to put forward your opinion, uninhibited by state censorship, is the only fair and equal protection for all citizens.

Moreover, we must also reject that concepts such as “grossly offensive” speech have a universal standard, as what is offensive to one person may not offend another. No consensus should decide what is published. Let’s delve into the thought experiment presented by John Stuart Mill: all but one person in a society believes in the truth, beauty and righteousness of a particular proposition, and believe that any deviation from this proposition is utterly offensive. We should consider whether it is right for the consensus to decide if the heretic can voice their opinion.  This is the most extreme case of the majority enforcing its beliefs on a minority: the minority of one. If the consensus suppresses and censors the heretic, then the consensus-holders become imprisoned within their own opinion, as they deny themselves the opportunity to change their minds. It may feel like a warm, splendid and palatial prison, but it is a prison nonetheless. The censorious instinct arrogantly assumes that what is currently known is all that it needed to be known, and no further enquiry is ever necessary.

Punishing citizens for making abhorrent or “grossly offensive” speech or public communications is also incredibly stupid. We have open courts in Britain, whereby your crime becomes a matter of public record and a relatively free press that report on significant court cases. If what a person has posted online or said is not actually offensive to most people, then we have punished that person for committing no crime. If it is actually offensive to most people, then we have ensured that instead of a few hundred people seeing that post on a social networking site, or in hearing distance, millions of people who watch news programmes know what they said.

I will always defend free speech, the right of these people to express their view, their jokes, and their opinions; even though, many people may find what they have said to be abhorrent. Indeed, defending free speech inevitably involves defending abhorrent speech. However, I find the calls for censorship to be more abhorrent than the speech sought to be censored. It does not mean I agree with those people for their expressions, merely the right to express it without being taken to court. Whilst some of the restrictions may have made sense for graffiti on a wall, social networking has created over a billion digital walls. Upon these digital walls, we may put either our most well-crafted and intelligent points, or the most instantaneous and reckless points.  However, it is always useful to know what people really think, and so others may challenge those deep thoughts if they find them objectionable.

It is time for all the people in Britain to demand that these restrictions on speech are removed. We are adults, and can discuss ideas as such, without state intervention into conversations.

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