Free Speech? In 1791, the Congress of the United States ratified ten amendments to the US constitution. These amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, stand today as a clear definition of the foundations of a free society. In the long history of the slow development of human rights, from Magna Carta in 1215, through to the legislation of current times, this must take its place as one of the most influential.
Amendment 1 boldly and firmly states ‘Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press’.
Almost one and a half centuries later, in 1950, the Council of Europe issued the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 10 of that document reads ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.’ Important in this wording, I believe, is the guarantee of freedom not only to hold ideas, but to ‘impart information and ideas without interference’. Although the press is not specifically mentioned in that wording, it is fully covered.
So – in two great continents, Europe and North America, free speech is guaranteed. Right?
It’s not that simple!
Of course, it is recognised that freedom of speech is not an absolute. Some kinds of speech, for example slander of another person, lying under oath, telling military secrets to the enemy and so on – all have been illegal for a very long time. My concern, however, is that over the past 20 years here in the UK we have seen a subtle increase in the restrictions on free speech and even more dangerously, on the very freedom to debate difficult and divisive issues.
In any civilised and democratic society there are two key components of freedom in speech and ideas which should be sacrosanct. One is press freedom – always the first victim of totalitarian and fascist regimes; the other is academic freedom – also an early casualty throughout history when dictators rule.
Why are these two so vital to democracy and a free society?
Press freedom, specifically guaranteed in the US Bill of Rights (though not specifically in the ECHR) allows the public full access to information without government control. We rightly deplore the tight controls over information which has been exercised in the past 100 years in several totalitarian states, most egregiously perhaps in Nazi Germany, Communist China and the Soviet Union. Millions of citizens in these regimes were denied access to information or views other than those sanctioned and approved by the state. Many such regimes, sadly, can still be found today. In them people cannot make independent judgements about values or events, nor recognise that there are alternatives to the life they lead.
In the past few years here in the UK, attacks have been made on press freedom. For example, following on some seriously bad behaviour of members of the press, and the subsequent inquiry led by Lord Leveson, the government proposed a regulator, IMPRESS, which was ultimately answerable to government (politicians!). Despite honourable efforts to put in controls which would guarantee that IMPRESS would be always at arms’ length from government, many saw this as a dangerous tool which a future government might be able to exploit to censure ideas and views with which it disagreed. It is difficult not to be pleased that no major newspaper has joined IMPRESS, preferring instead to join a press-controlled self-regulator, IPSO (the Independent Press Standards organisation).
Nor is this the only example of a dangerous constraint on press freedom. The new phenomenon of public opinion as expressed (usually anonymously) on social media has developed into a fearfully powerful tool and not necessarily for good. A chilling example of this was when the stationery company Paperchase not only apologised on Twitter for advertising in the Daily Mail but added ‘we know now (ed. because of what has been said on Twitter!) that we were wrong to do this….and we won’t ever do it again’. If advertising revenue is cut because a newspaper offers views with which ‘the people’ – as represented on social media –disagree, then a deeply worrying control over press freedom is emerging.
Academic freedom is equally vital in a free society. It is in universities above all that ideas are questioned, debated, opposed and defended, and where each new generation of young people learns to defend or change the assumptions which they bring. Academic research may question old ideas by bringing new evidence to the debate, as it has done for many centuries. Past scholars have hugely advanced human knowledge by their findings such as showing that the earth goes around the sun or that the natural world is shaped by evolutionary process. The advancement of human knowledge is a good that few would question, yet over time many scholars and thinkers have either been burned at the stake for their ideas or, in more constrained modern times, fired from their post.
It was the brutal firing of a colleague in America which led the economist Edwin Seligman and the philosopher Arthur Lovejoy to draft the 1915 ‘Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure’ which has become a benchmark for academic freedom throughout the Western world for the past hundred years. The two men were motivated by their outrage at the firing of economist Edward Ross from Stanford, for no better reason than that his views were unacceptable to the university’s wealthy proprietor Mrs Stanford.
The ‘Declaration’ is a vitally important and authoritative statement, defining the purpose of a university as ‘to promote inquiry and to advance the sum of human knowledge’. Human knowledge can only be advanced freely if those who teach are not constrained by government interference, and inquiry can only be promoted if students are not free to opt out of any teaching or views with which they disagree. Sadly, neither of these conditions any longer is assured in the universities of this country. Government has been using its financial powers to move closer and closer into the regulation of Universities. The new Office for Students has new and dangerously strong regulatory powers to punish universities whose teaching fails to conform to arbitrarily imposed standards, just as the Office for Fair Access claimed powers to punish by withdrawing funds from universities whose admission policies did not meet its rules.
I hesitate to enter the debate about the government’s ‘Prevent’ policy, which is meant to make teachers and lecturers a front-line police force against extremism. While I recognise the threat from radicalisation which has been found in some cases, I question the response, which by making teachers and lecturers responsible for monitoring and reporting any suspect behaviour or views, marks a fundamental change in the relationship between student and teacher.
These are controls which bear on the administration and teaching in universities. An further insidious form of control is also now found on the free debate of ideas with students. At some misguided moment, politicians decided that students should be allowed ‘safe spaces’. These are defined as places where ‘debate takes place within specific guidelines in order to ensure that people do not feel threatened because of their gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity’. It is worrying to find that, in a recent survey by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), almost half of all students surveyed support the safe-space policy. Listening to and debating ideas with which you disagree has always been part of the learning that good education offers. If you only hear views with which you agree, it could be argued, your views have never been tested and are therefore weaker.
The HEPI survey reveals similar worrying trends in other areas. For example, over one third of students responded that resources which caused offence should be banned from university libraries; one fifth disagreed with the statement that academics should be free to teach and research whatever they want. There seems to be a body of young people who mistakenly – and sadly – believe that a university should protect them from hearing or reading any ideas with which they disagree.
These findings amongst the young raise issues for wider society which are in many ways more worrying than anything which has emanated from government. The popular view of a person’s right not to be offended has serious consequences for free speech. A civilised and adult view of the world should surely include resilience against offence. Despite this, many people now seem to feel that any views which offend any section of society should be suppressed. As I write, the argument is raging on all media outlets about one senior politician who has made a remark about the appearance of women wearing the burqa. Condemnation of his remarks centre upon the fact that he has caused offence. This is a relatively new phenomenon. A decade or more ago, for instance, there was staged a play which portrayed Jesus Christ as a baby in a nappy. This caused offence to many people, but the play was allowed on the public stage, no-one was arrested or otherwise punished. In the 90s, television showed a weekly programme, ‘Are you being served?’ which made fun of a gay character, and that series remained popular for over a decade. Yet now, the slightest offence given can lead to a storm.
There will always be views, publications, performances which we find personally or socially offensive. There will always be people whose views differ from ours, and debate which we find uncomfortable. Schools and universities should be committed to helping young people deal with this; to listen to and debate opposing views, and even, if necessary, deal robustly with verbal abuse. I strongly believe that this is a better way of protecting young people than trying to spare them from any exposure to ideas different from their own.
Education, I passionately believe, leads to an opening of minds, not their closure. Through a respect for inquiry, for evidence, for the logic of opinions, we can fight prejudice and extreme views. As the great philosopher Peter Abelard said in his famous ‘Sic et Non’ exposition, ‘By doubting we come to inquiry, by inquiry we come to truth.’ How perfect a way to describe what education is about!
One question remains, and it is an important one. How does free speech – in government, in education and above all in social media, deal with lies? In an era where ‘Fake News’ is a norm in You Tube, Twitter, Facebook and dozens of other outlets, do we respond by banning them all? A long-term but urgent policy must be to educate the generation who live on such sites to distinguish between the truth and the lie. This they can only learn to do by listening to two versions of a single event or both sides of a story and making a judgement as to which has the force of both truth and logic. And this is the heart of my concern about current policy. If we allow young people to see and hear only the one side of every issue – the one with which they agree – how will they ever learn to distinguish truth from falsehood? How will democracy survive if lies can be as powerful as truth?
Baroness Perry, August 2018.