We are living through one of the greatest periods of technological revolution in human history. So it is perhaps inevitable that, in light of that change, and the savagery of online abuse and the intolerance of woke culture, many have begun to reassess their core beliefs – particularly with regard to free speech. But there are some things we cannot sacrifice, free speech among them. So it is important to return to first principles. Why do free speech and free expression matter?
They are essential to the full development of each individual and the precondition to enjoying a wider set of rights, from freedom of assembly to the freedom of the press. An effective democratic society depends on voters developing informed opinions from free and open debate, and exercising their choices unhindered at the ballot box. A free press is a means of underpinning other human rights through the ability to expose abuses and persecution. Free speech is also a means of ensuring that marginalised minority voices are heard, voices that might otherwise be drowned out. It is a crucial bulwark against abuses of power, allowing for criticism of those who would use authority to restrict other freedoms.
Of course, we have always accepted restrictions on free speech, including laws governing libel, slander, obscene material, the abuse of copyright and incitement to commit crime. These are key exemptions in the US First Amendment, something that is often overlooked by the “free‑speech purists”.
Today, however, our principles are being challenged in other ways.
First, with the risk of online harm, we recognise the danger of self-harm and suicidal behaviour among those who are bullied. And there is no doubt in my mind that a serious problem exists. Perhaps inevitably, there has been a demand for new legislation to deal with the issue and perhaps that is a path we will take.
But before we do, we must think about other approaches as well. This includes the concept of digital self-care – giving individuals the tools to control their time online and the sites they visit, limiting push notifications, and resisting the need to record every step, every meeting and every bite taken. There must be a role for parents and teachers in education about bullying and, if necessary, help so that young people can intervene on behalf of others being victimised online.
Second is the trend among some groups to want to silence views that they don’t like, including through bullying and intimidation. Their approach says: “I have a right to say what I believe because I believe it to be right. You are not allowed to disagree with me because my view is right and you will offend me if you criticise it.” It goes even further and says: “You, on the other hand, are not allowed to express your view simply because you believe it to be right and, if you do, I should be allowed to criticise it even if it offends you.”
It is a concept of free speech that belongs in a parallel universe. If unchecked, it will choke the essential tolerance of a civilised society and create the danger of igniting a counter-reaction leading to majority intolerance and minority oppression.
Ignoring all this and keeping our heads below the parapets can only result in more victims, the trampling of our values and one person fewer in the defensive line between ourselves and the mob. Free speech is not simply a matter for government, but for us all.