OPINION
Ruth Smeeth: "Free speech is a force for good"

150 writers and academics have signed an open letter saying the forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world

10 Jul 2020
BY RUTH SMEETH

Free speech is a powerful thing.  It gives us all the right to use our voice, to engage in debates about the future and the past. It is one of our basic human rights and gave authority to so many campaigns which have shaped the countries we live in. It empowered the civil rights movement, it enabled the feminists, it galvanised the LGBT+ rights campaign and it facilitated the anti-racism and anti-fascism campaigns which gave so many of us a place in society. As with all our human rights it is to be used, celebrated and protected and cherished. It is a force for good.

There are times though when ‘debate’ on social media could make you believe that everybody hates each other. That we have nothing in common and that no-one else’s voice or opinion is valid. That anger and hate rather than conversation and debate are the current manifestation of our free speech. We know that not to be true in our offline world – but like it or not this does have an impact on our free speech; it doesn’t engender positive engagement but it does create a chilling effect.  And the quality of our national conversation is all the poorer for it.

Index takes no position on any issue other than the protection of free speech.  We don’t advocate for one side over another in a debate.  But rather we celebrate debate and engagement and education, things that I think we should all cherish.

On Tuesday night, 150 leading writers and academics from across the political spectrum signed a joint open letter for Harper’s magazine decrying the current state of debate and engagement.  Many of them have a track record in the fight to protect free speech, in fact several have previously written for Index.  All of these people have a profile and voice. They aren’t being silenced. But they are rightly worried about the quality and calibre of our collective national conversations. And they raise valid concerns that other people are being silenced.

Their words are a warning and a message that should inspire debate, as it has in recent days:

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.”

Our role at Index is clear – we exist to provide a voice for the voiceless – a platform for the persecuted.  That’s what we were established to do 49 years ago.  But, we also will campaign relentlessly to ensure that our basic human right of free speech and free expression is not only enshrined in law, but protected and respected.

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