Free Speech is seen as one of the guiding principles in any modern day liberal democracy, but is it under threat? And should we allow the government to pass laws suppressing certain viewpoints and speech?
As defined by the English Oxford dictionary, free speech is “the right to express any opinion without censorship or restraint”. And as written in the 1st Amendment of the US constitution, it is the principle that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The fact that the Founding Fathers decided to make free speech the first amendment in the constitution, a constitution dedicated to maintaining freedom for its citizens, demonstrates what a key principle it is in maintaining a free society, and this is shown by the fact that the only speech that is not free in the USA is speech that directly incites violence. Despite this, the United Kingdom does not have any entrenched free speech laws, and in addition, has “hate speech laws”. Hate speech is speech that “attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, disability or gender”. Whilst initially you may think that having hate speech laws is a step in the right direction for society, in reality, it is a step towards the dark depths of government thought regulation and achieves nothing in defeating hateful ideologies.
Firstly, the issue with hate speech laws is their subjectivity – you may find something “hateful” or “offensive”, whilst somebody else may not. This means that the decision-making process for whether this law is applied in order to press criminal charges is entirely down to the subjective opinions of the alleged “victim”. Therefore, these laws cannot be consistently applied to every area of society since everybody has their own individual opinions and subjective views. This is the issue with subjective laws – they cause confusion and uncertainty, as what is it that exactly equates to “attacking a person or race”? Is it criticising Black Lives Matter? Is it criticising the Prophet Mohammed? The issue of subjective laws is currently being demonstrated by the social uncertainty surrounding sexual harassment – many people don’t seem to know exactly what equates to sexual harassment, and quite often it comes down to the feelings of the alleged “victim”. Laws are not supposed to be subjective, they are supposed to be objective, like murder or robbery, since there is a very clear definition of them, and as a result, they can be consistently applied in a country’s judicial system.
Secondly, suppressing viewpoints, such as white supremacy, that most normal people would find disgusting and disgraceful does not achieve anything. If you take a group of white supremacists, then make their viewpoint illegal, they are not going to suddenly change their views. The only way to change their views is by taking part in an open discourse with them and prove to them, and the world, that their viewpoint is misguided and the rest of society’s viewpoint is better. By making their viewpoint illegal, the only people that they will engage in political discussion with is people that they agree with, and as a consequence the law of “group polarisation” will kick in. Cass Sunstein, expert in constitutional law and a law professor at Harvard University and author of 40 books including “Republic 2.0” and “Hashtag Republic”, is the main driver behind this theory. In 1999, he conducted a study titled “The Law of Group Polarisation”, in which he describes how “deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, towards a more extreme point in the direction indicated by their own preconceived judgements. For example, people who are opposed to the minimum wage are likely, after talking to each other, to be still more opposed”. What Cass Sunstein is saying is that when a group of like-minded people with similar viewpoints talk with each other, their views move further towards the extreme. Therefore, suppressing people with “extreme” viewpoints will only push them further towards the extreme, since they cannot express their viewpoints in public, but only to those who they agree with.
Laws limiting speech specifically in the UK set a very dangerous precedent. Unlike the US, the UK does not have an entrenched codified document, such as the US Bill of Rights, that outlines in detail the rights of each citizen. Therefore, in the US, it is extremely difficult to remove a citizen’s right to free speech or their right to bear arms. In the UK, all that is required to do this is a simple act of Parliament passed by a majority. Parliament could repeal “The Human Rights Act 1998” tomorrow if it wanted to, removing many of our rights as citizens. As a result of this, laws limiting free speech can be easily passed, and there is absolutely nothing that the electorate can do about it until the next general election. This is the danger of not having an entrenched constitution in the UK, and not giving the population the means of removing a member of the executive or legislative branch in the middle of their term, unlike in the US where they have midterm elections.
This piece is titled “The Modern Day Assault on Free Speech” since the imposition of these laws is occurring all over the world, particularly in Europe. It is important that we recognise the dangers of these kinds of laws, and how they obstruct our freedom as citizens. Whilst we disagree with those with “hateful” viewpoints, unless they are inciting violence, and speech is not violence, we should protect their right to speak, as this is the most fundamental principle of a free society – to be able to express your opinion, no matter what that opinion is.