Free Speech is a Right, Not an Excuse

By Rhodri Sheldrake Davies

Recently, the UK independence party launched a new manifesto to become a “radical, populist party” in contrast to what they termed the “politically-correct thought police”. UKIP’s realignment is merely the tip of the iceberg of a resurgent debate in Britain on the limits of freedom of expression.

In recent months, the invocation of ‘Free Speech’ to justify controversy has become commonplace in British politics: from Boris Johnson’s divisive comments on the Burqa, and the backlash against them, to the now infamous ‘Trump and Khan Balloons’, condemnation of Labour’s ‘Free Speech’ position on Israel and serious questions about Freedom of Speech at Universities.

One should not endorse UKIP’s extreme push to repeal hate speech Guidelines, including the 2010 Equalities act. More worryingly they have called for the shutting down the advisory Equalities and Human Rights Commission, despite this commission’s work in protecting freedom of expression. Regardless, the question must undoubtedly be asked; where do the limits of Free Speech lie in the UK now, and has Britain rejected it as they claim?

The use of ‘Free Speech’ to justify controversial statements has become commonplace.

Consider the case of Boris de Pfeffel Johnson. The Conservative MP has continuously succeeded in pushing the limits of publishable Free Speech, seemingly jumping from controversy to controversy over the last few weeks. An ex-journalist, Mr Johnson, is all too aware of the viability of using provocative ideological standpoints to grab coverage and getting support by reasserting his right to freedom of expression, only to quietly backpedal later, as commented on in this very publication by Simon Green.

A similar tactic has been employed by the ‘free Tommy’ movement playing off victim narratives and converting their leader into a ‘Free Speech martyr’, despite Robinson’s actual imprisonment for contempt of Court. Free speech despite its cultural value, is instead being used for political gain, to justify provocative notions that would otherwise simply garner condemnation.

Despite the perpetuated narrative, the left is often as likely to use ‘Free Speech’ to justify its often polemical ideological positions. Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s standpoint on the criticism of Israel, for example, has been defended as ‘freedom of speech’, despite being strongly criticised as highly insensitive, even amounting to “a ‘right to be racist’ in certain circumstances”. Even the issue of censorship and no-platforming has been argued to plague the left and right, conservatives and liberals alike, often most vigorously on university campuses.

Less a crisis of Free Speech as a concept, more of its use as a term.

Understanding ‘Free Speech’ reveals a far more blurred narrative than many commentators may want to admit.

So, has freedom of speech become too controversial for British politics? It seems so, although this has more to do with its usage as a term than the concept of it. Despite being treated by most as a cultural touchstone, freedom of speech is being employed by some over-powerful voices in the British political sphere as a final catch-all justification for everything from dog-whistle racism to flaunting court orders.

In order to remain both a tolerant and open society, it is vital to reclaim the original concept of free speech, using the term, not in reference to stand-alone ideology or political ploys, but instead in forums of debate: such as Union Societies, Seminars, Panel Discussions, Parliamentary Chambers, or even the Pub. These ought to be places where substantive ideas can be put forward, and more importantly, challenged. Only by treating Free Speech as a means, rather than an end, will we be able to salvage its true meaning.

Featured Photo: Back Boris 2012 via Flickr

Trump Balloon Photo: Michael Reeve via Flickr

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