Human Interest Politics Racism

Should the Right to Free Speech be Universally Applied?

George Orwell once wrote that "if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear". Should the right to not be offended trump the right to free speech?

Sam Robertson

Naked Politics Blogger

On the 25th May, just two days before attending Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park – a historic and loved bastion of free speech – I learned that Tommy Robinson, an anti-Islam activist turned “journalist”, had been arrested outside Leeds Crown Court for live-streaming during a ‘grooming gang’ case. His followers immediately claimed that the authorities simply don’t like what he has to say and are prepared to use force to prevent him from saying it. He was subsequently sentenced to 13 months in prison for contempt of court, as his broadcast was said to prejudice the case that he was “reporting” on. But after right-wing activists – Lauren Southern, Martin Sellner and Brittany Pettibone – were refused entry to the UK recently, it does beg the question of whether shutting down unpopular opinions really is the best way to challenge them.

Throughout history, authoritarian governments have sought to control populations by limiting what they are permitted to say. Great men have suffered horrendously at the hands of strictly enforced restrictive speech laws; from the execution of Socrates in 399 BC to the arrest and forced labour of Solzhenitsyn during the Soviet Union. Collectivist oppressors – whether in Nazi Germany, Castro’s Cuba, or Kim’s North Korea – have successfully employed coercion and fear to restrict what individuals can say for no other purpose than to keep them in line.

In stark contrast is the first amendment of the American constitution – arguably one of the greatest documents ever written – which states…

“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”

They realised that in order for a people to be free they must first have to be able to say what they think without fear of persecution. Benjamin Franklin reinforced that principle when he wrote…

“Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government: When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved”

Unfortunately for us on this side of the pond, we are one of the very few countries that have no formally-recognised written constitution. For years, political “correctness” – a term that fallaciously implies that only orthodox views are fit for public consumption – has been used to shift British society from embracing ‘diversity of thought’ to a much more authoritarian nannying state.  The right to free speech is under attack as certain words and jokes are no longer tolerated, diversity training and quotas are mandated, and HR departments assume a Stasi-esque role keeping office workers across the country in check.

The Rotherham grooming gang scandal that broke in the summer of 2012, of which there are now at least 50 cases up and down the country, was a classic example of free speech being curtailed. Young, predominantly white working class, girls were groomed, drugged and abused by, predominantly, South Asian Muslim men. It would later be found out that social services, local councils and the police forces did not investigate these crimes for fear of being called ‘racist’.

It now seems that only ‘the Right’ is fighting for free speech, but surely everyone should be prepared to take up the cudgels for our freedom to speak openly and critically. In this age of outrage, people are very quick to take offence and although some speech can be harmful, the ability for vast groups of people to shut down an idea they don’t like is as infantile as it is scary.

Jonathan Pie, the fictitious left-wing news reporter created by comedian Tom Walker, agrees…

I will leave you with a thought experiment: Say you meet an ignorant young man who takes the erroneous view that black people are somehow inferior. If he is told that he’ll be fined or imprisoned for saying so because “it’s racist”, will that actually changed his position on the subject or would restricting his speech merely foster resentment and impede the ability of rational thinkers to enlighten him?

Whether you like what a person has to say or not, surely we can all agree that freedom of speech is imperative for humanity, as it allows good ideas to flourish and bad ones to be decimated – or, as Justice Louis D. Brandeis puts it,  “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”. 

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3 comments

  1. This is not a free speech issue. In this country we have an independent judiciary, another pillar of democracy, you cannot try and interfere with an active court case. Dressing this up as a free speech issue only goes to help the far right. He knows what he did was wrong, that’s why he pleaded guilty. And using an Orwell quote? Know your history, Orwell went to go and shoot people like Robinson in Spain. The right is not fighting for free speech, these are fascists plain and simple and should be treat like fascists

    1. Iwan,

      Would I be right to assume that you mean the reference to Tommy Robinson? The writer didn’t attempt to dress it up as a free speech issue, to be fair. He made reference to the fact that Robinson’s followers think it is. The fact that it follows others with similar views being refused entry to the country on the basis that they have used “hate speech” (i.e. words that the state decides are unacceptable) just meant that it was among the recent events that got him thinking about whether suppressing certain lines of thought is really an effective way of tackling them.

      On the George Orwell quote… he fought for free speech, which is what the piece is about and why his quote was used. His opposition to fascism is irrelevant because he supported their right to free speech too. That’s the point. The Right to Free Speech has to be universal if it is to mean anything at all.

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