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Queen’s Speech 2021: Free speech pendulum swings both ways

Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech to parliament confirmed that the government is yet to decide where it stands on freedom of speech

Speech has dominated the headlines over the past year. Cancel-culture has almost completely extinguished debate in universities on hot topics like race and religion; police have clamped down on people protesting about a variety of issues; and the tech giants have all thrown their weight behind the deletion of unpopular opinions. At the helm of all these issues has been the divisive nature of speech in the twenty-first century and the tenacious top-down attempts to subdue it.

Still, even in situations of offence and controversy, an individual’s right to “free expression” should be upheld as a principle of democratic values and human rights law. A famous writer once said, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

So, the government faces a predicament. It can either decide to stand up to protect the freedom of expression and risk aggravating the “in” crowd; or take an arguably easier route of permitting popularist opinions to overrule and censor ideas that are contentious, causing less ruckus amongst people who like to shout the loudest.

Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech to parliament — in which Her Majesty summarised the government’s intention to bring 25 bills for parliamentary debate this year — confirmed it hadn’t made up its mind at all. It has chosen to hold up the baton for both liberty and censorship. This could be messy.

The Queen’s Speech confirms the government is committed to expanding police powers

On the one hand, the government has come out strong in favour of freedom. The Education Secretary recently put his neck above the parapet and said that universities need to be held accountable for downgrading the value of robust debate. Recognising that in the name of offence, outrage, political-correctness, and identity politics, visiting speakersstudentsacademics, and non-academic staff members have all been victims of an enthusiastic silencing attempt, he has decided to fight back and provoke the cancellers. Gavin Williamson’s Free Speech and Academic Freedom plans have been confirmed by a Higher Education Bill, signalling intent to appoint a Champion to fight for students; introduce a “tort law” to compensate people impacted by censorship; and give more power to the universities regulator to enforce the law.

For students like Julia Rynkiewicz and Felix Ngole who affirmed the Bible’s views on marriage and life, this comes as good news. Their “orthodox” opinions landed their careers in muddy water when their universities came down strongly against their private views, and a Champion could have been a lifeline.

Yet, on the other hand, the government has chosen to tread the path of censorship, placing the public expression of a group or an individual in the hands of greater police discretion. In the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and in addition to the plans to impose tougher sentencing for serious offences, a loud message has been given to the public about expression and assembly. Greater control and conditions are necessary to manage and tame the primitive types of expression and gatherings outdoors that cause “mainstream” feathers to be ruffled.

This bill, introduced by Priti Patel earlier on this year, seeks to widen a 25-year-old law which allows public demonstrations to be restricted only when serious public disorder, damage, or serious disruption is caused. The new proposals give the police much wider-ranging powers, including the authority to stop people assembling if the noise level either intimidates local people or “may cause [people] to suffer serious unease, alarm or distress” and indict the speakers. In other words, a decision about what might be “seriously annoying” or “too noisy” is being handed over to police to add to their already growing mandate to oversee speech. If you come across as irritating, you may be handcuffed.

Despite lawyers testifying to parliament a few weeks ago that this bill could infringe human rights law and have a chilling impact on free speech and free assembly, the Queen’s Speech confirms the government is committed to expanding police powers.

We’ve got to seriously consider whether peoples’ right to do so should be suppressed so needlessly

Should police be able to ban the peaceful prayer of a single mother on the London streets offering leaflets to pregnant women who may be pressurised into considering an abortion; or elderly pastors reading the Bible in a town centre? These are real examples of censorship and could both easily be classified by the police as “annoying” enough to be forbidden. Under the Policing Bill, the offenders could face an eye-watering 10-year jail sentence — that’s the same sentence as for serious neglect and ill-treatment of children.

Regardless of our own personal views about various protest topics, we’ve got to seriously consider whether peoples’ right to do so should be suppressed so needlessly. Especially by the police who are already patrolling social media for non-criminal hateful content; often conflating “hateful” with “conservative”.

The government needs to make up its mind on speech. It’s illogical to have one foot in either camp, encouraging some public bodies to liberate and compensate the silenced; while simultaneously empowering others to criminalise public speech when it’s “annoying”.

What happens when the two paradigms collide — as they inevitably will? Can campuses be protected but not the streets? The pendulum cannot swing both ways.

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