It’s time for the UK to embrace free speech

The Conservative government responded to a recent petition which called for a ‘Freedom of Speech Act’. The petition had accumulated around 17,000 signatures and promised to bring an end to ‘hate speech laws’. In their response, the government claimed that the current constitution of the UK’s free speech laws balanced freedom with protection from ‘hostile behaviour both on and offline’. However, do people have a right to be protected from this kind of communication and is it time that the UK to embrace free speech?

Hate speech

The notion that people have a right to be protected from hateful speech is not a new one, although it has taken a recent fancy to by many. In the footnotes of John Stuart Mill’s work ‘On Liberty’, he claimed that there should be the ‘fullest liberty of professing and discussing’ no matter ‘how immoral it may be considered’. This is where the idea of ‘hate speech comes in, as ‘hate speech’ is defined by the British government as speech that is likely to cause ‘harassment, alarm or distress’. But do people have a right to be offensive? Of course, it is laudable to be concerned with the feelings and well-being of others.

Do people have a right to avoid offence? One philosophical justification for this right comes from Mill again, who proposed the idea of the harm principle. Which effectively boils down to the notion that ‘your right to swing your fist ends at my nose’. There is good reason to believe that the fist lands on the nose when it comes to the issue of hate speech. In his paper ‘Words that Hurt’, professor Richard Delgado claims that speech has the possibility to lead to harm both physically and emotionally.

However, one must note that this harm serves a greater purpose. When one encounters a non-conformist belief, a fact that doesn’t fit into our worldview no matter how hard we try, we experience a feeling of discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. It is through this process that learning occurs and that minds are changed. Just as doctors inflict harm in order to heal a patient, discourse causes discomfort in the process of education. Should this be outlawed? Certainly not. However, can this defence be used to justify racial abuse or homophobic language? Mill again serves as our guide when he claimed that ‘if all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind’. On a more practical basis, one has to ask whether silencing and persecuting racists is really the way to fight racism. Surely one could expect racists to simply go underground or, worse, rely upon dog whistles to get their message out there. I say let them come out into the open and face reality because I trust the arguments against racism and their effectiveness in exposing the weakness of racialised thinking.

When one encounters a non-conformist belief, a fact that doesn’t fit into our worldview no matter how hard we try, we experience a feeling of discomfort known as cognitive dissonance. It is through this process that learning occurs and that minds are changed. Just as doctors inflict harm in order to heal a patient, discourse causes discomfort in the process of education. Should this be outlawed? Certainly not. However, can this defence be used to justify racial abuse or homophobic language? Mill again serves as our guide when he claimed that ‘if all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind’. On a more practical basis, one has to ask whether silencing and persecuting racists is really the way to fight racism. Surely one could expect racists to simply go underground or, worse, rely upon dog whistles to get their message out there. I say let them come out into the open and face reality because I trust the arguments against racism and their effectiveness in exposing the weakness of racialised thinking.

UK free speech laws

Practically then, what should be done? Indeed, the conditions of the petition should be truly considered. As it stands, the current laws of the UK are far too restrictive to the free speech of its citizens. The removal of restrictions on offensive speech would be an important first step. Then perhaps, a review of the legislation surrounding threatening language could also be reviewed. Perhaps not basing it on such subjective notions like offence. In response to the recent debate over the state of freedom of speech at universities on both sides of the Atlantic. Universities minister Jo Johnson put forward the idea that free speech can be encouraged at our institutions of learning by facing fines if they attempt to ‘de-platform’ speakers. While again, this concern over the state of free speech is indeed admirable it is misplaced. Johnson should instead focus his attention on the leadership of the aforementioned institutions. The kind of debate much needed in this political climate cannot be developed through any law but is instead a situation that comes about through a natural conclusion of a certain environment. An environment that cannot be forced through by any law or policy.

What now?

Theresa May and her government have shown themselves to be superficially in favour of free speech. Indeed, many may actually agree with the government and their stance on the balance between free speech and protection from offence. Many may cite the example of groups like Sharia4UK who proselytise a dangerous extremist ideology. However one only needs to ask whether groups like this were banned for their message or the actions of their members? Further Noam Chomsky further claimed that ‘if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, then we don’t believe in it at all’.

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Christian Payne 3 Articles
A second-year student of philosophy, politics, and economics. Interests include developments in British and American politics and political thought as well as developments in the global economy.

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