One of the most dispiriting features of the spirit of our times is the formidable cultural valuation enjoyed by the sentiment, “No, you cannot say that!”
Of course there have always been censorious busybodies and illiberal moralisers who loathed any public expression of free thinking. However, today’s attacks on free speech are no longer confined to the usual suspects but are widely endorsed by individuals and groups across the political divide.
It seems that in the 21st century far more energy is devoted to the project of restraining freedom of speech than to expanding it.
In previous times, censors had a clear agenda and knew not only what they did not want said but what they wanted to hear.
Today, calls for press regulation, the policing of the internet or the criminalisation of speech are promoted by people who know what they don’t want to hear but have no idea of what they stand for.
Take the recent case of Paul Chambers, the author of a rash Twitter statement, who was tried and convicted for sending a message of “a menacing character” in an English court.
His crime? Upon discovering that his flight was cancelled he tweeted: “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!”
Only an idiot could have imagined this message represented a threat to the British way of life. Yet against the advice of his own staff, the Director of Public Prosecutions took it on himself to charge Chambers with a crime.
The good news is that after a high-profile campaign, the Chambers conviction was quashed on appeal. The bad news is that the Communications Act 2003—which criminalises “grossly offensive”, “indecent” and “obscene” messaging—remains on the British statute book.
In ancient Athens, where the idea of free speech emerged, they called it parrhesia. Strictly speaking parrhesia meant not so much free but frank speech. Speaking frankly was seen as inextricably linked to the seeking of truth—a tradition most boldly personified by Socrates.
It is not surprising it was in ancient Greek society, with its passionate interest in philosophical clarity, that frank speech emerged. Nor should it be surprising that today, when the truth is derided as a myth, free speech is seen as no big deal.
The Communication Act of 2003 is motivated by the aspiration to curb people speaking frankly. More or less the same aspiration motivates advocates of expanding the regulation of the media. What’s really important about the Finkelstein report in Australia and the Levenson inquiry into the media in Britain is the message they transmit, which is that freedom of the press is a mixed blessing. That’s another way of saying that protecting people from the media is more important than protecting freedom of expression.
Attempts to regulate the media are bad enough, but the hostility that is directed at frank speech is even more disturbing.
Take the example of the discussion surrounding a recent amendment to the hate crime provision of the Canadian human rights code. Supporters of this amendment rightly argued that the provision criminalised thought and that its sole purpose was to curb freedom of expression. Thankfully—and to my surprise—the amendment was passed by parliament.
When I expressed my delight to a group of Canadian academics, their response was one of incomprehension at my naivety towards freedom of speech. How can you “sacrifice equality for freedom of expression”, one of them asked.
Before I could reply with the question of “how could you sacrifice freedom of speech” they walked off. They clearly knew what they did not want to hear more than what they wanted to say.
The subordination of the freedom of expression to the objective of protecting people from frank speech speaks to an ethos that has a uniquely low opinion of the capacity of people to think for themselves. It is evident that supporters of hate speech laws and advocates of the policing of freedom of expression regard ordinary human beings as children who need to be protected from bad thoughts and offensive speech.
Time and again their arguments sound like a badly mangled script written for child protection. They claim that people need to be protected from the pain caused by offensive speech.
In the same vein, advocates of media regulation demand more protection for their readers. Critics demanding greater control of advertising insist that since people lack the moral autonomy to choose what is in their best interests, they need to be protected from confusing messages.
What’s really offensive is not the speech but the arrogant assumption that would deny us the right to judge for ourselves how to interpret it. Protecting the public from the media and from free speech represents a dangerous attempt to devalue people’s capacity for self-determination. The exhortation “No, you cannot say that!” is really another way of saying “not in front of the children”.
It is a sign of the times that frank speech is frequently stigmatised as a form of irresponsible behaviour. Anyone who has confronted the zealous advocates of regulating speech will be taken aback by their almost visceral reaction to freedom. Their disdain for what they contemptuously decry as “free speech absolutists” even extends back to the past.
That’s one reason why so many contemporary studies of Socrates suggest he went too far and exploited the freedoms provided by Athens. From this standpoint, if his words offended the public’s sensibility, then his right to voice them had to give way to the protection of people from his insults.
“Today it is likely he would be accused of giving gratuitous offence,” wrote a scholar on Socrates. No doubt, if Socrates were a professor working in a 21st-century university, he would be accused of violating the institution’s speech code. And no doubt if he were confronted with such an accusation he would be proud to declare himself as a free speech absolutist.