It’s a brand new day at the start of term for Westminster. Prince Charles has just opened the parliament on the Queen’s behalf, setting out the agenda for the coming year of legislation. At two-and-a-half years into the Johnson regime, it’s a good time to be taking stock of the priorities of the sitting government, and where they’re matching up to in reality.
Free speech was part of this government’s election manifesto, and is a key part of their image as the commonsense party standing firm against cultural hysteria. Universities have long been identified as a problem area for censorship.
So much for free speech
More than 1 in 4 students “self censor” their opinions on campus. Almost half are afraid their careers will be ruined if they speak out. The stirring trouble was brought to a head with stories of Professors like Kathleen Stock, hounded from her post for her comments on biological reality; or Father David Palmer, rejected from a role as a Catholic chaplain at Nottingham University because of his, err, Catholic beliefs.
The government was keen last year to put their best foot forward on this, unveiling the Higher Education (free speech) Bill in the hopes of ending a culture of no-platforming and encouraging the genuine open exchange of ideas at the institution for which such exchanges were created.
And yet, one whole Queen’s Speech later, we’re still waiting for this idea to become reality.
While that bill has somewhat languished in some corner of Westminster, the government have had other priorities afoot over the last six months. The controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Act did not need to appear in the Queen’s Speech today as a carryover, as the Higher Education one did — it was wrapped up in time a few weeks ago and given Royal Assent.
The efforts put in to push this law ahead depart somewhat from stated priorities. The Act is intended to prevent wildly disruptive and damaging protest. But in reality, it hands incredibly broad powers to police officers so that they could restrict public expression, such as preaching or sharing one’s beliefs, if they subjectively deem it to be an expression of dissent, and even at risk of causing a bystander to feel “alarmed”.
So much for free speech.
If this was not enough of an indictment of the government’s self-contradictory approach to protecting freedom of expression, the online safety bill highlighted by the Prince of Wales today certainly might be. The bill was born out of a plan to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online”. In reality, it puts immense pressure on social media sites to not only remove illegal speech — for example, that which incites violence — but also speech which is legal but harmful.
A more robust defence of democratic discourse is necessary
Nobody likes to be offended. But the possible scope for interpretation here about which people might personally find to be “harmful” is worryingly vague. Bear in mind that the Christian satirical news site The Bablylon Bee has already been sat in “Twitter jail” for months for the assertion that a woman is defined biologically. Or consider the numerous outraged persons that claim that JK Rowling was guilty of “fanning a genocidal impulse” for defending women-only spaces. What some people may find offensive is no measure for what is permissible to say in a free and open society. Ideas should be robustly challenged with other ideas, not silencing.
If the Conservative government wants to pave the way for freedom in Great Britain, free speech can’t exist in name alone. But the chance to champion it is not lost. Raab’s new initiative to establish a British Bill of Rights, also heralded in the speech today, could be a golden opportunity to codify the primary importance of freedom of speech in a democratic society. The Deputy PM behind the initiative said that he wrote the bill in response to “the parameters of free speech being narrowed”; the right to free speech being “whittled away”, he said, “sometimes without us really being conscious of it”.
Indeed, with stories of censorship hitting newspapers at a regular pace, it’s clear that a more robust defence of democratic discourse is necessary. We now wait to see how the government makes use of such a unique chance to shape the future.
The government will need to commit not only in word, but deed, after this year’s Queen’s Speech, if they want free speech to be more than cheap talk.
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