NEWS
Why is free speech important?
13 Apr 2016
BY JOSIE TIMMS
A drawing by French cartoonist t0ad

A drawing by French cartoonist t0ad

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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Professor Chris Frost, the former head of journalism at Liverpool John Moores University, told Index of the importance of allowing every individual view to be heard, and that those who fear taking on opposing ideas and seek to silence or no-platform should consider that it is their ideas that may be wrong. He said: “If someone’s views or policies are that appalling then they need to be challenged in public for fear they will, as a prejudice, capture support for lack of challenge. If we are unable to defeat our opponent’s arguments then perhaps it is us that is wrong.

“I would also be concerned at the fascism of a majority (or often a minority) preventing views from being spoken in public merely because they don’t like them and find them difficult to counter. Whether it is through violence or the abuse of power such as no-platform we should always fear those who seek to close down debate and impose their view, right or wrong. They are the tyrants. We need to hear many truths and live many experiences in order to gain the wisdom to make the right and justified decisions.”

Free speech has been the topic of many debates in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The terrorist attack on the satirical magazine’s Paris office, in January 2015, has led to many questioning whether free speech is used as an excuse to be offensive.

Many world leaders spoke out in support of Charlie Hebdo and the hashtag #Jesuischarlie was used worldwide as an act of solidarity. However, the hashtag also faced some criticism as those who denounced the attacks but also found the magazine’s use of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed offensive instead spoke out on Twitter with the hashtag #Jenesuispascharlie.

After the city was the victim of another terrorist attack at the hands of ISIS at the Bataclan Theatre in November 2015, President François Hollande released a statement in which he said: “Freedom will always be stronger than barbarity.” This statement showed solidarity across the country and gave a message that no amount of violence or attacks could take away a person’s freedom.

French cartoonist t0ad told Index about the importance of free speech in allowing him to do his job as a cartoonist, and the effect the attacks have had on free speech in France: “Mundanely and along the same tracks, it means I can draw and post (social media has changed a hell of a lot of notions there) a drawing without expecting the police or secret services knocking at my door and sending me to jail, or risking being lynched. Cartoonists in some other countries do not have that chance, as we are brutally reminded. Free speech makes cartooning a relatively risk-free activity; however…

“Well, you know the howevers: Charlie Hebdo attacks, country law while globalisation of images and ideas, rise of intolerances, complex realities and ever shorter time and thought, etc.

“As we all see, and it concerns the other attacks, the other countries. From where I stand (behind a screen, as many of us), speech seems to have gone freer … where it consists of hate – though this should not be defined as freedom.”

In the spring 2015 issue of Index on Censorship, following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Richard Sambrook, professor of Journalism and director of the Centre for Journalism at Cardiff University, took the opportunity to highlight the number journalists that a murdered around the world every day for doing their job, yet go unnoticed.

Sambrook told Index why everyone should have the right to free speech: “Firstly, it’s a basic liberty. Intellectual restriction is as serious as physical incarceration. Freedom to think and to speak is a basic human right. Anyone seeking to restrict it only does so in the name of seeking further power over individuals against their will. So free speech is an indicator of other freedoms.

“Secondly, it is important for a healthy society. Free speech and the free exchange of ideas is essential to a healthy democracy and – as the UN and the World Bank have researched and indicated – it is crucial for social and economic development. So free speech is not just ‘nice to have’, it is essential to the well-being, prosperity and development of societies.”

Ian Morse, a member of the Index on Censorship youth advisory board told Index how he believes free speech is important for a society to have access to information and know what options are available to them.

He said: “One thing I am beginning to realise is immensely important for a society is for individuals to know what other ideas are out there. Turkey is a baffling case study that I have been looking at for a while, but still evades my understanding. The vast majority of educated and young populations (indeed some older generations as well) realise how detrimental the AKP government has been to the country, internationally and socially. Yet the party still won a large portion of the vote in recent elections.

“I think what’s critical in each of these elections is that right before, the government has blocked Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook – so they’ve simultaneously controlled which information is released and produced a damaging image of the news media. The media crackdown perpetuates the idea that the news and social media, except the ones controlled by the AKP, are bad for the country.”

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Josie Timms

Josie Timms is former editorial assistant at Index on Censorship and the first Liverpool John Moores University/Tim Hetherington fellow.

One response to “Why is free speech important?”

  1. Censorship Wales: People of Wales are governed by the Welsh speaking nationalists determined to reclaim their language and culture by any means including forced assimilation and have unprecedented stranglehold of the media including the BBC Wales. Huge damage has been done to Welsh education and more damage on the way – Any public dissent is simply CENSORED! See: http://www.glasnost.org.uk/2016/03/welsh-education-children-betrayed-by-the-welsh-labour-government/