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The free speech façade

As I returned home from work one night a couple of weeks ago, I turned the radio on to hear the news that the writer Salman Rushdie had been stabbed. Shock rattled through my system, followed by complete disbelief. Despite his death warrant being announced over 30 years ago by the Ayatollah of Iran and his 10-year period in hiding, some maniac was still hell bent on the British writer’s destruction. Fate had finally caught up with Sir Salman.

For the next few days, I closely followed the story in the news. Much to my relief, the dissident writer was to survive, albeit in a critical condition. I observed the messages of support and solidarity, not just for Mr Rushdie, but also for the notion of freedom of speech and expression, that came flooding in from all sides of society. Notably fellow writers and politicians expressed their horror for such a cold-blooded and violent attack.

This outcry from public figures would suggest that we are a society that would go to the metaphorical gates of hell to defend our right to freedom of speech and expression. However, as I read these condemnations roll in, I couldn’t help but feel that many of their authors, especially the politicians, were being somewhat insincere. They will promise you that our seemingly entrenched right to freedom of expression is being defended at all costs against infringement, but I cannot help but notice that this is false.

A few months ago, in a similar case of so-called religious blasphemy, a film depicting the prophet Muhammad’s daughter had to be pulled from some cinemas in the North of England after only a few days screening. Large groups of Muslim residents in towns such as Bradford picketed outside cinemas claiming that they had a right not to be offended by material put on screens. Under mounting pressure, with no support from police or politicians, many cineworld locations pulled the film. 

This is one clear example of freedom of expression slipping to the demands of religious conservatives who claim they have a right not to be offended. However, I am afraid such a right does not exist if we are to be a society that prides itself on these freedoms that politicians are so keen to flaunt. Freedom of speech and expression means freedom to offend. These two things go hand in hand, since how can you expect to be able to say what you believe without ruffling a few feathers. In the pursuit for truth, which freedom of speech and expression are designed to enable, you must be willing to challenge others ideas and potentially cause offense. This may be uncomfortable as who enjoys having their deeply held beliefs challenged? 

However, this isn’t solely an issue that ties into religion. The pushback of our sacred rights seems to have permeated all facets of society. Most astoundingly, it has wormed its way onto university campuses, once the home of radical ideas. Last year, at the University of Sussex, professor of philosophy Kathleen Stock was pressured into resigning after comments she made concerning the trans rights movement sparked protests on campus and calls for her termination from students and staff. In the months after the debacle, the University of Sheffield’s diversity and inclusion officer was forced to leave by colleagues after he signed a ‘statement of solidarity’ for Professor Stock. 

Universities were created for the very purpose of discussion and refinement of radical ideas, from all angles of the political divide. So, to see cases like this is especially worrying. 

And yet the government has done nothing about it, while hypocritically claiming they are champions of our freedoms. In fact, it could even be argued that they are part of the problem. The Online Safety Bill which the conservative government has in the pipeline aims to make the internet a ‘safer’ place by removing content that is potentially hateful, offensive or unhealthy. Now of course users should be protected from the very worst dregs of content, such as terrorism and exploitation in pornography. However, for the most part regulators already do a good job of this. This new bill will leave the responsibility of protecting users to the search engines who will be incentivised to use blanket bans to avoid potential infringements. The result will be the banning of content and ideas that are considered ‘dissent’, ‘harmful’ or ‘offensive’ which is no job for big tech, let alone the state. One can clearly see the danger to our liberties here.

If you compile the details and the facts, it is clear to me that freedom of speech and expression is sadly being eroded in our society at present. I’m convinced that Salman Rushdie certainly wouldn’t have been able to publish the Satanic Verses today due to potential for offense. In fact, here is a challenge for you esteemed reader. Go and buy a copy of the Satanic Verses and read it blatantly in public. Read it on the bus, read it in your local library, read it in a restaurant. If you are feeling brave enough, go to somewhere like Bristol and read it in the most pretentious vegan café you can find. Perhaps I am wrong and you will be able to read undisturbed, but my bet is that you will get at least a few tuts and dirty looks.

Image ‘Free Speech * Conditions Apply’ by Fukt (photographed by wiredforlego) is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.