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Free speech in free fall

As British freedoms are continually eroded, much of the liberty lobby seems to have nothing to say

Artillery Row

Members of Parliament are the only people in Britain constitutionally guaranteed a right to freedom of expression. Since 1689, Parliamentarians have benefited from parliamentary privilege, enshrined by Article IX of the Bill of Rights. This is an immense and important privilege. It has allowed MPs to expose truth and injustice which might have been impossible by other means, and, though sometimes abused, it has been a cornerstone of British democracy and indeed democracy throughout much of the Western world. 

However, MPs have developed the annoying habit of using their own parliamentary privilege and freedom of speech to take away freedom of speech from the public at large. The recent discussion of the egregious new Hate Crime Act which has come into force in Scotland this month distracts from the fact that laws like the Public Order Act, the Communications Act, and the Online Safety Act have curtailed dramatically freedom of speech in Britain, and have led to people being jailed for jokes posted on Twitter, and even in private conversations. 

Where, then, is the resistance?

Free expression is fundamental to democracy, but it has been chipped away by politicians over the decades on the grounds of safety, or of protecting against discrimination. The new Hate Crime Act in Scotland is just the latest example, which embraces the worst aspects of the Equality Act, and forbids discriminatory speech on the grounds of a number of “protected characteristics”, thereby entrenching the idea that we are not to be identified as individual citizens, but as instead representatives of particular groups, defined by categories like race or religion.  

Despite paying lip-service to freedom of expression, MPs of all parties have continued to limit speech, and few have had the courage to stand up for the right to be able to say something which is cruel, rude, offensive, or discriminatory. 

A case in point is the Online Safety Act, which was conceived originally as an attempt to protect children from incitement to suicide online, and has morphed into a regulatory monster, forcing codes on conducts onto tech platforms around speech which will erode privacy and increase the likelihood of legal speech being deleted.  This will be overseen by the mighty regulator Ofcom, whose remit has expanded from broadcast media to all online discussion.  This expansion in remit has apparently warranted a new Ofcom team some 350-strong, policing online safety at our expense. According to a glowing piece in the Financial Times, many of these new digital commissars joined the regulator after previously working in the trust and safety departments of global tech platforms. These appointed officials now wield political and legal power over what we all say online.

The erosion of free speech does not stop there. This year, the Government published a new official definition of extremism, which it will use to tackle the “ever-evolving threat of extremism in the UK”. Unfortunately, its definition is so broad that it could define much criticism of Britain’s constitutional status quo as extremist. Just as left-wing activists turned the Prevent scheme, designed to counter Islamist terrorism in the UK, against isolated, right-wing teenage boys who pose no threat to national security, this new definition seems liable to be used to prosecute those who criticise the UK’s progressive status quo

Add to this the emergence of politically-motivated de-banking, which prevents individuals and businesses taking part in modern society, and the United Kingdom is slipping into a state of soft-tyranny, where a suffocating mixture of obligations, conduct requirements, and anti-discrimination laws quietly erode the sort of freedoms we have taken for granted for centuries. 

Where, then, is the resistance? Britain has a long tradition of campaigning to protect and expand freedom of expression. The advocacy group Liberty was founded 90 years ago, as the National Council for Civil Liberties — which remains its formal name today — in response to the “the general and alarming tendency to encroachment on the liberty of the citizen”. Unfortunately, the organisation spends most of its time championing left-wing causes, like campaigning against the Metropolitan Police’s recording of criminal gangs, advocating for the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, and supporting open borders. It is quite clear that Liberty today is only concerned by the rights and freedoms for certain people in the United Kingdom. Neither the Online Safety Act, nor the latest Hate Crime Act passed in Scotland, warrant a mention on the lengthy “Issues” page on its website.

This leaves the cause of free speech, in all its ugliness and chaos, a rather lonely one

Index on Censorship has a roughly 50-year history of campaigning for freedom of speech around the world. Founded to campaign against censorship in the former Soviet Union, Index’s work has always had an international flavour, hence its prominent focus on media freedom in countries like China, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. However, it does run some campaigns devoted to British matters, such as campaigning to ban the use of “strategic lawsuits against public participation”, and an end to the supposed secrecy around the Royal Family’s archives.  

As Index On Censorship says: The message of one of our founders, Stephen Spender, was that Index wouldn’t be doing a good job if it didn’t keep an eye on attacks to free expression that happen on home soil. This is entirely reasonable, but aside from campaigning for the rights of journalists to report on Russian oligarchs’ misdeeds without the threat of lawsuit and to dig into the royal archives, the organisation has little to say about the criminalisation of speech affecting the British public at large. 

Despite adding its name to the Free to Disagree project, coordinated by the Christian Institute, which campaigned against the Scottish Hate Crime Act, Index on Censorship has been remarkably quiet on the most prominent threat to free speech in the UK today. Led by a former Labour MP — and senior employee of Hope Not Hate, no one’s idea of a friend of free speech — the organisation’s priorities seem to cleave neatly with centre-left opinion. The Scottish Labour Party supported the Hate Crime Act — it would not have become law without their votes — and the national Labour Party has not condemned or criticised it. 

This leaves the cause of free speech, in all its ugliness and chaos, a rather lonely one. Its two most reliable defenders are the Free Speech Union, set up by journalist and school-founder Toby Young — a victim of multiple attempts at left-wing cancellation for his views — and the libertarians at Spiked Online. Few others have had the courage to defend the rights of nationalist activist Sam Melia, recently jailed for posting racist stickers on lamp posts, Paul Bussetti, who was handed a suspended sentence for sharing a video of an effigy of Grenfell Tower burning on a bonfire, or four former police officers imprisoned for offensive WhatsApp messages, sent in a private forum. 

These cases may be offensive and tasteless, but the use of the state’s power to jail people for political speech or offensive jokes is the behaviour of an increasingly totalitarian nation. The British state has decided to mitigate the tensions of a diverse society by limiting speech and narrowing the window of political debate. In doing so, it has created a de-facto blasphemy law, which protects certain minorities from offence, and prosecutes those who offend them, as the outrageous treatment of the Batley Grammar School teacher, and the complicity of West Yorkshire police in the hounding of a family over a boy scuffing a copy of the Koran in Wakefield attest. The only solution is a total overhaul of all laws which have limited free expression in the last 60 years. British democracy itself depends on it.

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