Freedom of Speech Must Be Protected in The Face of Creeping Absolutism

What do the “gay cake” case, the same sex marriage referendum in Ireland, university ‘no platform’ policies and the British government's aspirations for greater surveillance powers all have in common? They all bring into question how we define and uphold equality and liberty.

These two values are seen increasingly as opposites when they should be seen as bedfellows. The freedom to exercise one’s conscience is critical in helping create and maintain a truly liberal and tolerant society. Yet it seems that we are moving towards an age of absolutism, where equality - wherever it is applied - must be achieved at the expense of everything else including, regrettably, the freedom of expression.

There are too many cases of people being hauled in front of the courts because they expressed themselves in ways that have been deemed by some as offensive. Take the 15 year-old boy who was served a court summons for saying that the Church of Scientology is a cult, or the preacher convicted for expressing his view that homosexuality is a sin. Despite recent reform of Section 5, which should be celebrated, there is still too much legislation that makes it possible for speech deemed offensive or hateful to be a crime.

freedom of speech must be protected, even when people’s feelings are hurtOften those who voice their displeasure at those they disagree with - inevitable and essential in an open society - also demand sanction against those who in their eyes are ‘wrong.’

Take this increasingly pervasive attitude and combine it with legislation such as the Equality Act (which, although positive, could be open to abuse) and it’s not difficult to imagine more cases of alleged offensive or hateful speech reaching the courts. The Communications Bill - the so-called ‘snooper’s charter’ - could pave the way for the state in the future to sanction individuals if information that it trawls from our emails is deemed to be hateful or insulting.

Resolving this tension between freedom and equality never going to be easy but we have two options: we either accept differences, debating and engaging with those we disagree with without fear of sanction or we seek to silence those we judge to be wrong. It seems that we are moving towards latter. In many universities for instance, expression deemed especially offensive is banned either throughout the entire campus or via ‘no platform’ policies.

There is also the danger that those who today feel they are in the right because they are helping change social attitudes, find themselves on the wrong side of the law in the future as cultural tastes change.

If we really believe that no individual, group or organisation has a monopoly on truth or the right to force their views on others, then freedom of speech must be protected, even when people’s feelings are hurt. Causing offence, whether it’s intended or not, is an inevitable and necessary product of a truly free and open society. If we really believe in tolerance and diversity then learning to openly live with one another despite our differences is essential.

provision must always be made for those that disagree to be able to express their view without sanctionPeople must have the freedom to say what is not only true for them, but what they deem true for others, and we should accept that this might cause offence.

This should apply in absolutely all cases unless a view incites physical violence, because it is impossible to define a priori what is and what isn’t offensive. Why should offensive expression of conscience in one category be more likely to face prosecution than hurtful speech in another? Taken to its most logical conclusion, anyone could be offended by anything. Is this really the sort of society we want to live in?

The liberty to express one’s conscience should not be pursued as an end in itself but in order to promote a progressive and open society. Being exposed to other views expands our understanding of how others live and might even help change our own point of view.

This doesn’t mean that the pursuit of equality has to be abandoned or that we shouldn’t challenge any expression we find offensive. But provision must always be made for those that disagree to be able to express their view without sanction. Equality and liberty can be bedfellows and live in harmony with one another. Our society has functioned on this basis for generations and there is no reason why it cannot continue to do so.

Bakers who don’t want to write messages on cakes or printers who don’t want to print certain posters should not be forced to do so, however much we think they should be. This is what freedom of conscience is about. That was as true for the members of the Black Liberation Movement who were marginalised on ‘hate speech’ grounds in 1960s Britain, as it is for atheists in Egypt or Christian or Muslim preachers persecuted on similar grounds in the UK today.

The alternative is a creeping absolutism that undermines our basic freedoms and our democracy.

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