The Attack on Free Speech
Free Speech is increasingly under attack in Western countries. One indication is the de-platforming of speakers deemed outside the pale which is ongoing. Another is the preparation and enactment of new “hate speech” laws by many European governments including Ireland.
In the case of Scotland there was a strong kickback to the draft bill from many quarters which caused Scottish Tory justice spokesman Liam Kerr to say that the “avalanche” of opposition could not be ignored. Nevertheless the Scottish Parliament seems determined to push ahead.
Here in Ireland the government is no less eager to show itself a dutiful member of the compliant nations. The EU itself is pushing this legislation, a manifestation of the growing power of the EU and other supranational institutions and the declining power of national parliaments to determine their own laws. We have already seen how most European nations have ratified the Istanbul Convention, without any internal debate, under pressure from the Council of Europe. The UK is one exception.
Free speech which during the decades after WWII and during the Cold War was seen as a fundamental principle of free nations, is being subjected to increasing criticism from newspapers like the New York Times, Washington Post, and many others. Often this takes the form that free speech is in conflict with social justice and too often allows expressions of “hate” toward certain protected communities.
One problem about so-called “hate speech” is that no satisfactory definition exists and that it is in practice impossible to differentiate it from speech deemed offensive by at least one member of a large audience. But if this is sufficient to cast it into doubt and subject to sanction the result is inevitable: people will no longer express themselves forcefully, will remain silent for fear of transgressing certain invisible and arbitrary boundaries laid down by the new thought police.
Hate Speech Incidents
Gender, race and sexual orientation are foremost among the characteristics under which people are now likely to find themselves accused of making allegedly offensive remarks under the new dispensation. There have been many cases in the past few years where people have been sanctioned for remarks which to those concerned seemed to be in the category of robust speech but are judged by the ultra-sensitive standards of the woke to be harmful/offensive.
A recent spat over the definition of “woman” caused Change.org to rule the definition “Woman is an adult human female” as hate speech.
UK Police are now recording “hate incidents”, acts or speech not deemed sufficient to warrant a police charge but which are nevertheless being filed. According to the Free Speech Union:
“While there is no crime yet of verbally disrespecting transgender people, any such attack is likely to be recorded by the police as a ‘non-crime hate incident’… You probably will not be told this has happened, or that you now have a police record, but – and here’s the catch – anyone seeking an enhanced Disclosure and Barring Service check will.”
Over the past five years, the police have investigated a staggering 120,000 ‘non-crime hate incidents’ in England and Wales.
One notable case in the UK was that of former police officer Harry Miller who was visited by police and told that while his tweets were non-criminal they were being recorded as “hate incidents”.
Miller had dared to challenge the contemporary orthodoxy that people should be allowed to “self-identify” as any gender, and have it immediately accepted under law.
Now the High Court in England has ruled in Miller’s favour, comparing the police’s actions to those of the Stasi in communist East Germany, and stating that they represented “a disproportionate interference with the claimant’s right to freedom of expression because of their potential chilling effect”.
We are witnessing a growing battery of repressive legislation all of which is being enacted in the name of “compassion” but which has the effect of further narrowing the bounds within which citizens are free to express themselves without fear of state intervention. Another serious objection is who determines what is “hate speech”.
The most appropriate instruments for combating hate speech are not laws, but political persuasion, education and social norms.
Free Speech Union
One of the most significant and encouraging events of 2020 was the setting up of the Free Speech Union by journalist Toby Young in February. The union has had immense success in its first full year and has countered no-platforming attempts as well as legally defending others whose rights had been infringed. Young noted that woke activists hunted in packs creating the illusion that they represented large numbers of people and that one way to oppose them was to set up a counter group: And that’s why I am launching a Free Speech Union – a non-partisan, mass-membership organisation that stands up for the right of its members to tell the truth in all circumstances, even if that means causing offence to some.
Here are some of its successes:
The FSU’s launch coincided with two no-platforming incidents at Oxford. The fact that it managed to successfully intervene to defend the rights of both Selina Todd and Amber Rudd meant the FSU was off to a flying start.
Nick Buckley was fired by a charity he had set up for vulnerable young people in Manchester after writing a blog post in which he took issue with some of the policies of the BLM organisation. After the FSU intervened new trustees of the charity were appointed and the first thing they did was to reinstate Nick as CEO.
On 7th October, the journalist and Brexit campaigner Darren Grimes received an email from a Metropolitan Police officer notifying him that he was being investigated for the crime of stirring up racial hatred. Grimes was simply reporting what an interviewee had said. A week after intervention by the FSU, the police said they were dropping the investigation .
Finally there was a welcome upset for the growing trend for mandatory bias training. The UK Government has announced it is scrapping unconscious bias training for the civil service, A government review, which was launched shortly after the release of the FSU’s briefing Unconscious Bias Training: Social Lubricant or Snake Oil? found little evidence that the training accomplished much of anything.
In conclusion here is a very worthwhile podcast of an interview with Toby by Jonathan Kay on all of these events, his view of wokeness and how he sees the future.