The whole idea of ‘free speech’ has had a few challenges this last week or so. The Paris Brown saga (about which I’ve written here), the decision by the BBC not to play ‘Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead’ though it reached number two in the charts, the various attempts to block protests at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral, the late amendments to the Defamation Act to remove the proposed controls over companies’ abilities to sue for libel, and the arrival in court of the Sally Bercow/Lord McAlpine twitter defamation trial about which I wrote this in December). Watching how all of this has been reported – and watching the exchanges in the media, and on twitter in particular – has reminded me how unclear it seems to be to many people what the point of free speech is. What is free speech? When it should be protected?
I don’t think there’s a very clear answer – not to me, at least – but there are some things that are clear to me. I’m not a ‘free speech absolutist’ in any way. I don’t believe that freedom of speech is such a pure and perfect thing that it should be prioritised over all other things – over privacy, for example – but I do think that in the UK, at least, we seem to miss what the point really is rather more than we should. For me, free speech is about holding the powerful to account. It should be to help the little people, the ordinary people, to have their voices heard. It should be to stop bullying, not to allow it.
Holding the powerful to account
That’s where things seem to be so very much out of kilter over the last few weeks: it has been the powerful’s voices that have echoed everywhere, and the ‘ordinary’ people who have found it hard to be heard. The BBC caved in to the powerful voices of the Daily Mail and the Telegraph in blocking the playing of ‘Ding Dong’ – when they had a perfectly reasonable opportunity to just play the song without comment or emphasis. It was a bit of a silly campaign, but why silence it? It was a bit distasteful, a bit disrespectful – but if we think taste and respect is sufficient reason to block free speech we’re going down a very slippery slope, the kind that ends in the kind of Lèse majesté laws that they have in Thailand and can give a 15 year jail sentence for insulting the King.
It’s a similar story in a way for the changes to the Defamation Bill. I’m not wholly convinced with the libel reform campaign in some ways – I don’t think our defamation laws are quite as broken as some suggest – but the limitations on companies’ abilities to sue, particularly where they perform a public function, seem to do exactly the right thing for freedom of speech: support the weak against the powerful.
Freedom to protest
That kind of relationship is echoed in relation to protest. The ability to protest – the freedom to protest – is a crucial part of freedom of speech, because it’s about holding the powerful to account. Freedom of speech doesn’t just mean freedom to speak politely and respectfully. It doesn’t just mean freedom to say things that the authorities like – indeed, quite the opposite. It’s most important when people want to say things that the authorities don’t like – and say them in a way that the authorities don’t like. Protest is part of that – indeed, it’s a key part of that. It may seem a bit pointless at times, it may seem disrespectful and disruptive – but it’s important. During the aftermath of the death of Thatcher, many people felt that their views were being marginalised – that they were being presented with a view of Thatcher that didn’t accord with their experience. How could they get their views across? From their perspective, the BBC and other broadcasters weren’t showing it – they were giving a series of ‘respectful’ and ‘supportive’ views. When they organised a silly song, even that was silenced. Their ‘parties’ were demonised – or barely covered on the media.
Some of it was very much distasteful – the burning of effigies etc – but even that is part of freedom of expression. For me, it shouldn’t be silenced – it should be listened to, it should be argued against but when people feel as passionately as they do about Thatcher, it’s hardly surprising. Sometimes the ‘polite’ and ‘respectful’ ways aren’t available – or are easily ignored. Sometimes they just don’t work.
The freedom to be offensive?
That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s always ‘OK’ to be offensive. Another example of this happened quite dramatically yesterday with the somewhat gruesome saga of twitter user Old Holborn. He posted some really remarkably offensive tweets – supposedly jokes, I think – targeted at Scousers, tweets about Hillsborough, about Jamie Bulger and other things. Really horrible stuff – and the result was that people started doing some research, to find out who ‘Old Holborn’ really was. In a relatively short time his name, address, employers name, phone number and more were released onto the internet – and apparently he started to receive threats, even death threats. The full details have yet to come out, and whether or not the police are involved – and how – does not appear completely clear at this stage.
Many people are finding this hard to react to – and I’m one of them. What he tweeted was totally repellent – and yet, to someone like me, so is the kind of targeting of him, the ‘torches and pitchforks’ approach to him. And, most importantly, if we believe in freedom of speech, we have to believe it for the people we don’t like, as well as the people we do like. If I want the right to protest about Margaret Thatcher, I need to be willing to accord the right to be offensive even to the likes of Old Holborn. Indeed, that’s the key test of my commitment to freedom of speech.
That doesn’t mean – in either case – that freedom of speech means a freedom from the consequences of that speech. Freedom of speech, like all freedoms, comes with responsibilities and consequences – if I say something offensive, then the chances are that people will be offended. It’s not that they have a right not to be offended, but that their being offended means something. It will make them react. That reaction may be real, it may be nasty, but I have to accept that this reaction may happen.
The point of freedom of speech
So that brings me back to the main question. What’s the point of freedom of speech? It’s not about ‘nice’ things. It’s not about ‘respect’. It’s about being able to fight against conformity, about not being bullied. About giving people power. If we start using ‘taste’ and ‘decency’ as our guides, we’re headed in a direction that is very disturbing indeed. We seem to have moved in that direction the last week or two. I hope we have the sense not to go any further.