Picture credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

With freedom comes responsibility

Where were all the free-speech warriors when a Labour candidate sent an antisemitic tweet?

I nearly began this piece with an expletive, but then thought better of it. I realised it might not get published. But that’s not an attack on my freedom of speech, it’s a question of appropriateness. Writers generally adhere to standards of appropriate language, as do others in many public-facing roles.

I consider myself a free speech absolutist in that I don’t believe any speech should be regulated by law. Not so-called “hate speech”, not incitement to violence, nothing. Words are only ever words. But I do believe that certain roles carry certain responsibilities. If you want to exercise your right to say what you like when you like, then certain jobs just might not be for you. That’s different to saying everyone should be subject to “cancellation” for uttering anything perceived as offensive. That list is now endless. I’m talking about stuff that specifically renders you unsuited to a specific role.

For example, many on the right get irate when teachers profess left-wing sentiments in schools. And, when they eventually log off Twitter and go to bed, they don’t lose too much sleep about freedom of speech. Because, again, the real issue is appropriateness. Teachers shouldn’t be political. And being a teacher – including abiding by the behavioural expectations that come with it – is their choice.

By the same measure, if you want to offend someone’s religion, you’re free to do so, just leave it outside the classroom. Or if you want to walk around cursing like a sailor all day? Fine, but get a different job. Perhaps an actual sailor.

Self-censorship is a serious problem, but only because it’s gone too far, not because it exists at all

I do think, unfortunately, that much of the hysterical reaction to the Batley school episode, ranting about “blasphemy laws”, is driven by other agendas. It’s uncanny how the number of free speech warriors suddenly sky-rockets whenever Islam is involved. Later on Friday, there was news of a Labour GLA candidate being deselected after an antisemitic tweet came to light. I wholeheartedly condemn that post because it would clearly be inappropriate for anyone in public office to express such views. But I couldn’t help wondering where all the thousands of apparent free-speech warriors had disappeared to? It makes me angry that some people hijack the free speech debate, so precious to me, as cover for their prejudices.

Self-censorship is a serious problem. But that’s because it’s gone too far, not because it exists at all. A small amount of self-censorship has always existed. It’s called good manners. And a certain amount has always existed in professional life too. It’s called professionalism.

Freedom of speech doesn’t free you of your responsibilities. Indeed, its survival is dependent on people using it responsibly. We defenders of free speech should pick our battles more carefully. Becoming absolutist about what is acceptable – not just what is legal – may do the cause more harm than good, inviting those who don’t value our freedoms to curtail them by law. Then we have lost. And, after all, good manners cost nothing.

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