Anne Marie Waters
Sunday 8th August 2021
Last Sunday, I spent the afternoon at Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park, London. You can read a review here and watch a video here.
There has of course been some discussion on social media surrounding this, and one thing I can’t help but notice, is confusion around what exactly is meant by free speech. There are those who seem to believe that being blocked on Twitter for example means being deprived of free speech. So let me explain my view on this absolutely essential civil liberty; what it is, and what it isn’t.
Free speech is a civil right. This means it is a means by which citizens in a democratic state may criticise, question, and challenge those in authority. It allows those without formal power or influence to hold the powerful to account. Last week, I was asked if free speech was limitless and my answer is no, it isn’t, but when criticising religion for example, yes, it should be entirely free. That’s because religious institutions either exercise, or seek to exercise, great power over people’s lives. This power can be exercised in the political or private realm. That’s why criticism and questioning of religion is so important, because it has power.
In practice, if free speech is to effectively play its part in the democratic process, it would mean that voters could question political candidates for office as they see fit, and the candidates answer as they see fit. We can only hope the candidate gives honest answers but what cannot happen is that they are hampered by law as to what they can or cannot say. It also cannot happen that a candidate is limited in what they can comment upon or what changes they would make if elected.
What’s perhaps more interesting is what free speech isn’t! It isn’t, for example, saying whatever you like without consequence. If we swear at or insult our boss, we run the risk of losing our jobs. Claiming free speech won’t cut it.
Similarly, if we consistently verbally abuse our spouse, we may find ourselves in the divorce court. Once again, free speech will be no defence.
If we lie or maliciously spread nasty rumours, we may face a defamation suit.
What I see argued repeatedly however refers to behaviours on social media, and there are specific nuances in this regard.
Just as a person has a right to speak, others have a right to choose who to listen to, or not. Others also have a choice as to whom they decide to engage in conversation with. If I choose to block a person from my social media account, I am not impeding their free speech, I am simply exercising my right to choose who I listen to, or speak to.
On the other hand, if I seek to have someone removed from social media altogether, then I am attempting to impede their free speech. I can choose not to listen to someone, but if I try to decide that nobody should be able to listen to them, that’s a different matter.
If Twitter or YouTube bar a person because of the expression of their political views, that, arguably at least, amounts to an infringement of their free speech. This is particularly pertinent given the power of social media in modern life. Politicians for example will often use social media to communicate, so if they are prevented from doing so, it amounts to big tech companies interfering with the ability of a politician to campaign – simply because they express views that a big tech company doesn’t approve of.
When the mainstream media prevents political candidates from communicating to the electorate, because the journalist or editor disapproves of that candidate’s views, that amounts to an infringement of free speech, largely because it influences our democracy and the outcome of elections. This makes it a matter of civil liberties. It is, in other words, a limitation on our civil right to speak and to listen.
It is a bit of a minefield and there is vast confusion surrounding this issue. Many will use accusations of free speech impediment wrongly to attack opponents merely for refusing to associate with them, or engage them in conversation. This is quite common in my experience.
If we are to defend free speech, and we must, we should be clear about what it is. I attended Speakers’ Corner last week because a woman, criticising Islam, was attacked with a knife for doing on the previous week. The response of so many is to blame the woman herself for her criticisms of Islam. This is a complete perversion of morality. To respond with violence to a person’s right to criticise a powerful ideology is the very essence of preventing free speech. Its ramifications will be felt across the board. It will create fear and self-censorship, which is of course its purpose. It is a form of terrorism.
Free speech is very much in jeopardy across the Western world at present; this is caused by a mixture of media bias and censorship, social media accounts shut down by big tech companies, hate speech laws, and violence.
It is absolutely crucial we understand what we are defending, and what we are fighting for. We are fighting for our right to question the powerful and to do so without censorship or fear. In other words, we are fighting for our democracy, and we must have our free speech in order to do so.
Anne Marie Waters
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