Free speech under attack

The idea of freedom of speech, or freedom of expression, is bandied about a great deal these days. It’s sometimes easy to say it without understanding what it really means, and why it is important. Indeed, sometimes those who pose as the greatest champions of freedom of speech seem also to be amongst the biggest threats to it, and at every scale, from the Daily Mail, Telegraph and others attacking the Guardian as threatening national security to Richard Littlejohn, again in the Daily Mail, attacking Jack Monroe for having the temerity to blog. To some, it seems, freedom of expression should only apply to the kind of expression they like. That doesn’t seem much like freedom to me – and it also goes very much against the whole point of that freedom.

Freedom of expression and power…

Freedom of expression is enshrined in pretty much every important human rights document. That should make us ask a number of questions. First of all, what do we mean by it. Secondly, why does it matter so much. Thirdly, what are the threats to it. Finally, what do we need to do to protect it. These questions are not really separate – they’re all linked together, because, from one perspective at least, they all have an underlying theme: freedom of speech is about power. It’s about finding a way to redress the imbalances in power that exist in our world. It’s about holding the powerful to account – and doing what can be done to prevent the powerful from using that power to their own ends, and to the detriment of the less powerful. The primary threats to freedom of speech come from those trying to hold onto their power – and to prevent those who are less powerful from finding ways to be more powerful.

Freedom of expression and the press…

One of the main reasons that, historically in particular, the press has been so important, is that it has been a way to hold the powerful to account. Investigative journalism at its best does this – as the Watergate story bore out so dramatically. That’s where the Guardian’s publishing of the information leaked by Edward Snowden comes in. It’s pretty much the epitome of ‘old style’ freedom of expression. It’s what the press do at their very best – find out where governments have been overstepping their authority, misleading the public, becoming more controlling and authoritarian – and then making that information known. They’ve done a fantastic job – and one that has had repercussions around the world. They have shaken the most powerful institution on the planet – the US government – and opened up a huge debate (less so, sadly, in the UK than almost anywhere else) that needed to be opened up.

Freedom of expression and the UK government…

The way that the UK government – and David Cameron in particular – has threatened the Guardian over these stories should be taken very seriously. Grant Shapps’ attacks on the BBC are part of the same agenda – trying to stifle expression and to use their power to control the agenda.. Anyone – and yes, that includes the Daily Mail, the Sun and so forth – who supports the idea of freedom of speech, or who understand that idea in anything more than a perfunctory and selfish way, should be defending and supporting the Guardian in particular to the hilt. The lack of that support seems to me to be indicative of a failure in the UK to really grasp the point of freedom of expression – and its importance. That failure is echoed in many ways – and seemingly by almost all parties.

Freedom of expression – and its role – is under attack in a great many ways. Though I am distinctly ambivalent about the Royal Charter for press regulation, and see that many of those fighting against it are doing so for purely selfish reasons, without any feeling for or real belief in freedom of expression (witness the supine role of so much of Fleet Street over the attacks on the Guardian) it is entirely right to be deeply concerned about any direct governmental role in regulating the press. What is set up for one reason can very easily be used for another. Some slopes really are slippery…

Freedom of expression and surveillance…

…as the role of surveillance in practice demonstrates all too graphically. What is the real purpose of surveillance? Is it, as its advocates pronounce, to protect national security, to fight the terrorists and track down the paedophiles? That might be the aim in some circumstances, but in practice, as the many abuses of RIPA in the past has shown, it ends up being used for much more pragmatic purposes – and indeed more sinister ones. Internet surveillance has two direct impacts on freedom of expression. Where covert, it allows those with opinions (or those seeking out opinions) that are deemed ‘unacceptable’ to be tracked down and silenced. Where overt, it chills speech, and scares people into submission. Headlines like that in the BBC earlier this year ‘Whitehall chiefs scan Twitter to head off badger protests’ make the point: ‘don’t even think about tweeting about your protests, we’ll find you and stop you’.

That is another reason, of course, that the Guardian’s leaking of the Snowden stories are particularly significant if you’re an advocate of freedom of expression. Internet surveillance may be the biggest threat to freedom of expression of all – because the internet is where the biggest opportunities for freedom of expression now exist.

Freedom of expression and the internet…

Over the past decade or so, the internet has provided more and greater opportunities for freedom of expression than anyone could have imagined. The ability to blog and tweet gives a voice to millions who would otherwise not have had any opportunity to speak. It allows people to find information that they would otherwise have had no chance to find. It allows a sharing of views, a level of criticism and analysis that is wonderful for many, many people – but is deeply threatening to others. That’s why governments are often terrified of the internet – and one of the reasons why people like Richard Littlejohn, a ‘power’ of the ‘old’ press find people like Jack Monroe so frightening. Their power is under threat – so they want to do something about it.

That’s one of the reasons there are sometimes harsher laws for doing things on the internet than there are for doing the same things in ‘real’ life. That’s why there are so many moves to try to control and corral the internet – and why those moves should be resisted very carefully. The ongoing suggestions to build ‘default-on’ porn-filters is part of this – not only will the filters actually filter out far more than porn (indeed, one of my own blogs discussing porn filters was actually porn blocked!) but they establish the idea that filtering and censorship is not just acceptable but actually something good and worth promoting. The powerful want to control the internet. They want to retain their power – and that, in practice, means restricting freedom of speech.

Taking care of freedom of speech

Freedom of speech matters – it really does – and whenever we see it under attack, we need to think very carefully about it. Not just the specific attack, or the specific opinion being attacked, but the implications and the part that it plays in the bigger picture. We should be in a golden age of free speech – the technology should bring that – but we’re not. We should be feeling empowered and emboldened to take on the powerful and make the world a better, more liberated, more enlightened place. We’re in danger of making it exactly the opposite.

11 thoughts on “Free speech under attack

  1. It seems to me that in the UK, as enthralled as we still are with monarchy – thus aristocracy, deference – thus inverse authoritarianism, power of the individual – thus elitism, the Mai and the Telegraph in the matter of Freedom of Speech are less fourth estate and more organs of the State. That is, the state and establishment which is so threatened by the increasing ability of individuals connecting together and building capacity to speak truth to concentrated power.
    Those whose ears are still open to those newspapers’ rhetoric are a decreasing force, a lost cause to freedom of speech. However, they are a nest which should not be prodded too indelicatley. They respond visciously, without compromise, and violently, when their masters voice is heard. Small in number but ready to quell freedom of speech disorder with methods out of all proportion to their democratic power. This demographic is filled with dread and exercised to stop at nothing when confronted with the uncertainties of what they call the rest of us – ‘the Mob’.
    They are the spectre that haunts Snowden and impelled him to speak, they are the spectre that haunts all of us so opposed to the totalitarian instinct. Free speech is the very devil to these people and free speech itself will not change them. All it will do is provoke them to entrench and respond with something terrible. This we should be aware of but not scared of, because it is an instinct that resides in all our hearts.

  2. Paul, Disagree that free speech or free expression are under threat. We have more of it than ever before and it is evolving beyond the idea of a “free press”. In many ways it shows the true age of a free press as we can all publish our pamphlets and find an audience.

    The threat is not to free expression or speech it is to thought and philosophy. So much of what is written is simply reflecting or reacting to popular prejudice that very little philosophy is happening. Richard Littlejohn shows the success of derivative thinking done for rehearsing popular platitudes to elicit a reaction rather than engage or sustain critical thought except to criticize rather than understand. He us very good at ahat he does, we are discussing him after all, but he hardly represents any type of thinking or sustained rational enquiry of the best way to live. To put it differently. Would you read or recommend anything he has written to help some one understand our society or politics with the goal of directing our lives within either?

    He is not a problem but a symptom just as most journalism is a symptom of a deeper malaise and hollow education system that attempts to instruct us or give us a liberal education but simply e,ds us equipping us to mediocrity at best and indoctrination into a political programme of the day.

    Few of us have the true leisure or bravery to examine out society and our beliefs to understand how and why we think as we do and how and why free expression, which is not always necessary for a just or decent society, has a role in our lives. For the moat part we live lives of comfortable self preservation and we want that because the alternative, at least the downside, is worse than any benefit gained by the majority trying to have “enlightenment” from what true freedom of expression would entail.

    Instead freedom of expression is under threat because thinking and philosophy are under threat. They could be rescued but they will not be rescued by looking at the symptoms, freedom of expression, u,less we look at the causes, what is it about our society, the most liberal in history, that seeks to, and even requires, the suppression of some speech and thought, to survive? Thanks for an interesting and stimulating post. Your students are lucky to have you.

    1. I agree with quite a lot of what you say – that Littlejohn is mostly a symptom of a deeper malaise is certainly part of the story. Why is he given the opportunity to vent his spleen, though? I would say because he puts the message that those in charge of the relevant papers would like to put, because of their position and their power.

      I agree too, that free expression is under threat not because of what it is but because of what underlies it… indeed, that’s the whole point of the post, really. What’s more, as I said after being challenged in a debate on surveillance last week, things aren’t ‘worse’ than they were before the internet – but they’re also not as much ‘better’ as they could be. The threats have arisen to match the opportunities that the new systems have provided, if you see what I mean!

  3. Thanks Paul, a good piece, again.
    Littlejohn writes for a very narrow audience, whose prejudices are well known to him. It’s just lazy journalism at its worst.
    From my point of view, freedom of speech still exists for those willing to talk. It’s freedom of thought that is under threat. We are increasingly told not just what to think but what not to think too.

  4. So pleased with your interest in free speech and the attraction your blog will have to free-minded people (many young, fresh minds), Canabalism America tells me it would like to leave some information and photos on your blog. Though they understand you will have no objection they would first like to seek your stated approval….I lie of course but would like to make the point one can be so open that one’s brains fall out. Freedom of Speech can never be ultimate just we would like to agree how mutch it is tolerated.

    1. There’s a big point here – free speech is never absolute, not even in the US. The question is how it is restricted, not whether it is restricted, and how accountable that restriction is, and to whom.

  5. Free speech is under attack by Twitter and here is a message from twitter and my reply to that message.

    >This account, @Free_Speech, was suspended for sending multiple unsolicited mentions to other >users.

    >”The mention and @reply features are intended to make communication between people on >Twitter easier, and posting messages to several users in an unsolicited or egregious manner is >considered an abuse of its use. Plus, it bothers other users! For more information about these >features and proper use, please visit our @Replies and Mentions help page.

    >You will need to change your behavior to continue using Twitter. Repeat violations of the Twitter >Rules may result in the permanent suspension of your account.

    >To continue using this account, please confirm below:”

    No twitter this account had only sent fifty tweets and it was blocked because I had nothing nice to say about one of your corporate friends commonly know as Google and who I have reasons to suspect are “contributing” towards your financial well being in an effort to warn of any
    bad publicity about it’s spyware and unethical practises.

    I would also like to ask just why was a new web-site that I uploaded just an hour ago blocked by yourself with some absurd message about potential viruses and spam or was the site not hosted by one of your corporate chums.

    Twitter you have become a corporate gatekeeper and I am sure you are making a tidy profit along the way but some of the people still here are not bots and have the intelligence to realise that Twitter has over steeped the mark with its censorship rules.

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