Neither left nor right can claim the free speech moral high ground

Free speech has been taking a bit of a pounding lately, hasn’t it? Let’s just look at some of the recent highlights.

The Trade Unionist, Paul Embery, has just been thrown off the Fire Brigades Union national executive and banned from office for two years. His crime: he delivered a pro-Brexit speech at the Leave Means Leave rally. He had this to say on twitter:

Apparently, the FBU believe that it is unacceptable for one of their members to publicly back Brexit.

Then there was the hounding of the woman, who subsequently lost her job, for chanting ‘Nazi scum’ at a Trump supporter. Now, I think there is a case for prosecuting those who throw milkshakes or eggs at people. I think there is an assault case to answer if there is a genuine fear of violence, even if no specific violence occurs. But in this case, the woman neither threw the milkshake nor threatened violence. We may not like what she said, or the aggressive way in which is was shouted (though it was a demonstration, so context matters a little), we might think the accusation of ‘Nazi scum’ somewhat overblown, but she should be entitled to her opinion nonetheless.

Then there were the claims that Jo Brand was inciting violence for making a joke about replacing milkshakes with battery acid. Nigel Farage, that self-styled ‘striaght talker’ and defender of those who espouse, let’s say, non-mainstream views, found himself calling for retribution. The Guido Fawkes blog labelled it ‘hate speech’, leading Farage to tweet:

It may well be true that there is a double standard from many when it comes to so-called ‘hate speech’. Farage himself has been accused of inciting violence and others have threatened him with police action. But if his defence to such accusations were based on free speech – which they rightly were – it beggars belief that he can insist on police intervention in this case. What was clearly a joke, in the context of a comedy panel show, cannot credibly be deemed incitement to violence. Farage may be trying to highlight the double standard on this issue, but it simply makes him look entirely unprincipled on the very issue he claims to defend.

It has been du jour to argue that left-wing liberals are primarily responsible for such things. But the fact is, there is scant evidence of much respect for free speech these days on either side of the political divide. Right-wingers complain about being labelled ‘nazi’ and call for jokes to be investigated by police whilst left-wingers, likewise, call for jokes to be prosecuted and for insulation from any rude or insulting words. The libertarians might be trying to play the liberals at their own game but they succeed only in showing that the principles they claim to defend don’t count for much and that the politics of offence continues to hold more currency than it ought.

I long for the days when people could say what they think, others could freely say what they want in response, and all could share their views without fear or threat of reprisal. Instead, those who whip up the biggest twitter storm and successfully manage to waste police time investigating tweets and comments that were either not intended to be taken literally or that represent non-mainstream views that come with no threat of violence are the ones who make most political capital.

The lesson that has consistently been ignored is that such an approach is entirely counterproductive. As any musician or director who has ever faced the demonstrations and bans will tell you, the fastest way to get your art into the popular consciousness is to let the protests and bans come. Unless we think this applies only to art, consider what happened when Beth Rigby asked Boris Johnson a question about his less than sensitive remarks over Muslim women and the like:

Rather than shy away, Boris simply asserted his desire to speak frankly and robustly. Rather than applaud the question, people groaned. They whooped and cheered the answer. Attempting to crack down on what people may say rarely leads them to stop saying it or others to disagree with it. What it does is cause people to resent being told what they may say and views that they would otherwise dismiss suddenly become plausible and, perhaps worse, imperative that they are defended.

None of this is to defend the views, opinions and words people choose to employ. It is simply to defend their right to choose which views, opinions and words they will employ. It is not to say you ought to agree with any of the people mentioned above, it is simply to say that we should all agree that they have the right to say these things just as we have the right to say that we don’t agree (if, indeed, we don’t).

The one thing we should all be able to agree on is free speech because then we can hear whether we actually agree with someone else or not. Otherwise, we are hypocrites who want the right to say what we want – and expect everyone to be OK with it – whilst limiting what others say when we don’t like it. We want the right to say what we think without allowing others the same right. If we are happy stopping views we don’t like today, what guarantee have you got that somebody bigger and more powerful than you won’t stop you saying what you want tomorrow?