Freedom of speech, that cornerstone of democratic society, is not in the best of health. Many people are all too willing to add a caveat here, a qualification there, to say “I believe in freedom of speech, but you can’t say that.”
Take the Hate Crime Reporting Act, currently being pushed by Senator Edward J. Markey and New York Congressman Hakeem Jeffries. While both no doubt claim to support the First Amendment, they are pushing through an act that will allow a federal agency to scour Internet, television, and radio, in order to identify speech it deems threatening or hateful, and prosecute the speakers – which sounds an awful lot like Congress making “a law abridging the freedom of speech.”
In Europe, too, there is similar growing intolerance of speech that one section of society deems hateful or offensive. A pastor in Sweden can be sentenced to a month in jail for preaching to his own flock in his own church that homosexuality is a sin. British football fans can be arrested for singing songs to which others take offense. An art exhibition in London – Exhibit B – can be shut down because campaigners claim it’s racist. And in dozens of countries around the world, laws criminalizing blasphemy and apostasy are still being vigorously enforced.
On and on the clampdown goes. And few seem to have the wherewithal to resist. After all, they say, if speech or expression is wrong or hate-filled, why should it be free of restrictions? What good does such speech do?
But this is the problem. Too many in the West now believe in free speech only for those whose speech they approve of, the speech of right-on writers, hip commentators, and on-message politicos.
What’s needed is a defence of offensive speech — the speech of the deniers, the nuts, and the politically extreme. It’s only by having completely unfettered freedom of speech, with no caveats or qualifications or “buts,” that we can have an open and lively public sphere, in which bad arguments are refuted, ideas challenged, and, ultimately, the truth discovered.
It is because of the poor health of free speech today that spiked is launching the campaign Free Speech NOW!, and later this fall, we’re taking Free Speech NOW! to the US, in the shape of two free public events in New York and Washington, DC, (details of which can be found here). We will be exploring the key challenges to free speech today, from the rise of hate speech laws to the demise of press freedom.
At New York Public Radio HQ on 30 October, a transatlantic panel, featuring FIRE president Greg Lukianoff, spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, author and activist Wendy Kaminer, and former ACLU president Nadine Strossen, will explore the question “Should even hate speech be free speech?”
And at the Newseum in Washington, DC, on 5 November, speakers including Reason.com editor-in-chief Nick Gillespie, Newseum COO Gene Policinski, and Storyful CEO Mark Little will debate “Press Freedom in the 21st century”. For further details and to book your free tickets, visit Free Speech NOW!’s events page here.
Viv Regan is managing editor of the online magazine spiked. Free Speech NOW! is a spiked project.