Are we in the midst of a free speech crisis? Some consider it a myth, conjured up by extreme right-wingers to normalise hate speech and silence those they don’t agree with. But there is nothing manufactured about concerns over “cancel culture”, restrictions on academic freedom, or attempts to police what we can or cannot say. Many simply feel immense pressure to conform, which leads to self-censorship – an insidious development regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum.
To the former camp, free speech shouldn’t mean freedom from consequence. If an academic is hounded out of a university for saying the wrong thing, perhaps he should have just been more careful with his choice of words? When an Oxbridge debating society decides at the last minute that a public figure shouldn’t be given a platform, what’s the problem with turning them down? With freedom, they say, comes responsibility.
However, the free speech crisis, and I would argue that there is one, is far more sinister than a controversial speaker being banned from a campus, or one celebrity losing his job after a heated debate. For many, the parameters of acceptable speech are becoming far more restricted, to a point where the slightest deviation from certain ‘progressive’ orthodoxies can lead to lasting reputational and professional damage.
More concerning is the way government manipulates language. Hate crime legislation, for example, seeks to stamp out intolerance and hate, and what reasonable person wouldn’t wish for a more tolerant and less hateful society? To argue that hate crime legislation constitutes a fundamental risk to freedom of expression is, therefore, to open yourself up to accusations of being ‘pro-hate’.
And when people express concerns over the Online Safety Bill, which aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online” by obligating internet companies to remove “harmful content”, those against may and do ask: who would possibly want young and vulnerable people to be put in danger? If you take issue with no-platforming speakers, you can easily be subjected to the same treatment: why would you want this bigot to have a platform? You don’t endorse what he says, do you?
For those in favour of limited government, it is difficult to know how to change this culture. Can the government mandate freedom of speech? Whether top-down intervention is the answer, I’m sceptical. But what the government could start by doing, is to do away with legislation that is actively curtailing freedom of speech.
It seems that the mood music may be shifting. Home Secretary Priti Patel, who has written for 1828 previously, is about to launch a review into ‘non-crime hate incidents’, which see individuals who are reported for committing a hate crime and subsequently found to be innocent, left with a “hate incident” registered on their police record.
This is a step in the right direction; it certainly will take more than a “free speech champion” (as has been proposed by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson for English universities) to restore freedom of speech in this country.
When it comes to universities, existing legislation, including parts of the Equality Act 2010 and the Education Act 1986 risk undermining the government’s efforts, as Marc Glendening of the Institute of Economic Affairs has pointed out. It may be, as the Adam Smith Institute has advocated, that there is scope for a UK Free Speech Act, modelled on the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States that protects political speech from state interference.
There seems to be a prevailing view that tolerance can be achieved by censoring offensive speech. But, in a diverse, pluralistic society, there will always be a risk of causing offence, however innocuous what you say may be.
If we value freedom and civil liberties, and wish for free speech to be re-established as part of our culture and politics, we must differentiate between speech that incites violence, and speech that is simply offensive to someone, somwhere. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy, underpinning all other liberties. This is why, as we relaunch 1828 this week, free speech will be core to 1828’s renewed mission.