Free speech ‘in greatest peril since WW2’

Two Minutes Hate: John Hurt takes part in a ritual to eliminate thoughtcrime in a film version of 1984.

Is free speech REALLY under threat? A new mass-membership organisation, launched yesterday, claims that one of society’s most important freedoms is facing its greatest challenge since 1945.

For feminists, it was an extraordinary moment.

Germaine Greer, a liberal icon for her courageous leadership of the women’s liberation movement, had just been accused of having misogynistic views.

A group of students at Cardiff University had signed a petition demanding that she be banned from speaking there because she did not believe that men who had undergone a sex change were real women.

In the end, the university refused the petition – but rather than face hostile barracking, Greer decided to cancel her lecture.

Four years later, the debate over no-platforming and free speech is more intense than ever. Yesterday, the journalist Toby Young launched the Free Speech Union (FSU) to support those who complain of being silenced.

“Freedom of speech is at greater peril than at any time since World War II,” says the FSU website. Young cites a survey by the Times which found that 80% of people working in the arts were afraid of discussing their political opinions in case they were ostracised.

He was backed yesterday by a former head of the Commission for Racial Equality and one-time Labour candidate for Mayor of London, Trevor Phillips. Britain’s artistic and intellectual life is being stunted, Phillips said, because people are self-censoring instead of letting their thoughts and imagination roam free.

The issue is a causing waves all across the Western world. The University of California at Berkeley has seen violent protests over invitations to controversial speakers. Yet Berkeley was the home of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, and freedom of expression is enshrined in American law by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

In Canada, Danielle Robitaille – a female lawyer who successfully defended a radio host against charges of sexual assault – was no-platformed by students in Ontario claiming that her visit would leave them more vulnerable to sexual violence.

And in Australia, students demonstrating in favour of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement have complained of intimidation by Chinese students who support the government in Beijing.

At the same time, experts agree that we live in an age of unprecedented openness, in which everyone with access to the internet can air their opinions to the world on social media with a degree of freedom never before experienced in the history of humanity.

So, is free speech really under threat?

Speaking your mind

Some say that our society is becoming ever more restrictive. Opinions people disagree with can be condemned as hate speech and investigated by the police, even if they express a reasonable point of view. You can lose your job for saying something others find offensive, so it is safer to keep your thoughts to yourself. No-platforming can prevent some controversial ideas from being discussed at all.

Others argue that there has never been more freedom of speech. Thanks to social media, you can share your views with people right across the world – many more than would come to a student debate. No-platforming simply gives more publicity to the speaker’s ideas. As long as you do not libel anyone or incite people to break the law, you are in no danger of being prosecuted.

You Decide

  1. Would you go to a talk by someone whose opinions you dislike?
  2. Which is more important: allowing freedom of speech, or defending minorities from those who are hostile towards them?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you are going on a march in support of free speech. Design a banner to carry with you.
  2. Think about drawing up a constitution for a new country. On one side of paper, write a law about freedom of speech.

Some People Say...

“If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”

George Orwell (1903-1950), British author of 1984 and Animal Farm. His real name was Eric Arthur Blair.

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Freedom of speech (the right to express opinions without restraint) is a democratic ideal that dates back to ancient Greece. In the United States, the First Amendment guarantees free speech, though the country, like all modern democracies, places limits on this freedom. In general, the First Amendment guarantees the right to express ideas and information. On a basic level, it means that people can express an opinion (even an unpopular or unsavoury one) without fear of censorship.
What do we not know?
If this principle is really under threat since commentators argue: (i) the scale of the problem in universities has been exaggerated; (ii) even in free countries, speech has always been limited by social rules, not least the one about simple politeness; (iii) for public dialogue to make any progress, it’s important to recognise when a particular debate has been won and leave it there, (iv) you can tack free speech on to any crackpot prejudice – a clever rhetorical trick, but it shouldn’t be taken much more seriously than that.

Word Watch

Women’s liberation movement
A political movement which began in the 1960s, with the aim of ending discrimination against women.
Misogynistic
Involving hatred towards women.
Barracking
Abuse in the form of shouting or jeering.
No-platforming
Denying someone the right to speak in public.
Ostracised
Excluded. It originates from the practice in ancient Athens of banishing unpopular politicians by a democratic vote.
Stunted
Prevented from growing to a proper size.
Free Speech Movement
A movement which began with a mass sit-in by students at Berkeley, demanding that university rules against political activism be withdrawn.
Enshrined
In this context, to preserve a right, tradition, or idea in a form that ensures it will be protected and respected.

Subjects

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