As a political obsessive, I love the Queen’s Speech in the British Parliament. It marks the beginning of the new parliamentary session. It is uniquely British with all the expected pomp and ceremony and a significant amount of pageantry. But most importantly it is a restatement of our democratic values and processes. It also sets the agenda for the year ahead and makes clear what the Government is prioritising. And unfortunately, this year there were significant concerns for those of us who care about free speech.
The Queen outlined the government’s agenda and on the face of it who could object to an Online Safety Bill or a Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill or even a Counter State Threats Bill. But, as ever, the devil is in the detail and the detail for too many of the British government’s proposals seems to have many, what I can only hope are unintended, consequences.
The draft Online Safety Bill proposes not only the establishment of a new category of unlawful speech in the UK – legal but harmful – but it also proposes outsourcing the regulation of free speech in the UK to Silicon Valley. Most concerningly there is no provision outlined which will let us know how much content has been removed – or even what has been removed. On the face of it, that might not seem that important but how would a victim know if they were vulnerable? How will police prosecute hate crime? And how we will be able to analyse how much of a threat to free speech this bill has become, if we have no idea of how much is deleted. The Government has suggested that they will fine companies for deleting too much content but there is no provision outlined which would allow them to assess the scale.
The Academic Freedom Bill will establish a ‘free speech champion’ to ensure that free speech protections are enacted on campus, but this week the Government couldn’t answer whether this would empower Holocaust deniers to speak on campus – or stop them. What’s likely to happen instead is that academic institutions will be so concerned about the fear of a fine or bad publicity that they will stop speakers attending campus full stop – the ultimate chilling effect.
These are just two examples of why Index has such significant concerns of the direction that government is taking on free speech.
To be clear, Index supports any and all efforts to protect our collective right to free speech across the globe and we expect the British government to take a global leadership role in defending Article 19. But what we’ve seen in this year’s Queen’s Speech does not give us hope – rather it seems to be a systematic assault on free expression by the British government, under the auspices of protecting free speech.
I am a former legislator; I know that you cannot, and you should not try to legislate culture or language – it will have the opposite effect. People won’t want to engage and our public spaces will become free of debate and challenge. We deserve so much better. Going forward we will seek to work with the British government to introduce additional protections for free speech, we must use our voice to protect yours.