Freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. It reinforces all other human rights, allowing society to develop and progress. The ability to express our opinion and speak freely is essential to bring about change in society.
Free speech is important for many other reasons. Index spoke to many different experts, professors and campaigners to find out why free speech is important to them.
Index on Censorship magazine editor, Rachael Jolley, believes that free speech is crucial for change. “Free speech has always been important throughout history because it has been used to fight for change. When we talk about rights today they wouldn’t have been achieved without free speech. Think about a time from the past – women not being allowed the vote, or terrible working conditions in the mines – free speech is important as it helped change these things” she said.
Free speech is not only about your ability to speak but the ability to listen to others and allow other views to be heard. Jolley added: “We need to hear other people’s views as well as offering them your opinion. We are going through a time where people don’t want to be on a panel with people they disagree with. But we should feel comfortable being in a room with people who disagree with us as otherwise nothing will change.”
Human rights activist Peter Tatchell states that going against people who have different views and challenging them is the best way to move forward. He told Index: “Free speech does not mean giving bigots a free pass. It includes the right and moral imperative to challenge, oppose and protest bigoted views. Bad ideas are most effectively defeated by good ideas – backed up by ethics, reason – rather than by bans and censorship.”
Tatchell, who is well-known for his work in the LGBT community, found himself at the centre of a free speech row in February when the National Union of Students’ LGBT representative Fran Cowling refused to attend an event at the Canterbury Christ Church University unless he was removed from the panel; over Tatchell signing an open letter in The Observer protesting against no-platforming in universities.
Tatchell, who following the incident took part in a demonstration urging the UK National Union of Students to reform its safe space and no-platforming policies, told Index why free speech is important to him.
“Freedom of speech is one of the most precious and important human rights. A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offence in their time.”
On the current trend of no-platforming at universities, Tatchell added: “Educational institutions must be a place for the exchange and criticism of all ideas – even of the best ideas – as well as those deemed unpalatable by some. It is worrying the way the National Union of Students and its affiliated Student Unions sometimes seek to use no-platform and safe space policies to silence dissenters, including feminists, apostates, LGBTI campaigners, liberal Muslims, anti-fascists and critics of Islamist extremism.”
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