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.

Yesterday, the British 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 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.

In Canada, Danielle Robitaille – a female lawyer who successfully defended a radio host against charges of sexual assault – was no-platformed by students.

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

At the same time, experts agree that we live in an age of unprecedented openness

So Is free speech really under threat?.

Speaking your mind

Some say that our society is becoming ever more restrictive. You can lose your job for saying something others find offensive, so it is safer to keep your thoughts to yourself.

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. 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?


  1. Imagine that you are going on a march in support of free speech. Design a banner to carry with you.

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 US, 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 because many 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; (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 trick, but it shouldn’t be taken much more seriously than that.

Word Watch

Excluded. It originates from the practise in Ancient Athens of banishing unpopular politicians by a democratic vote.
Commission for Racial Equality
This was a non-departmental public body in the UK which aimed to address racial discrimination and promote racial equality. The commission was replaced by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
Prevented from growing to its proper size.
Denying someone the right to speak in public.
Never done or known before.
To stir up or encourage.
To officially accuse a person or an organisation of committing a crime in a law court.

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