THE BLOG

Freedom of Speech: The Right NOT to Say Whatever You Like

16/02/2015 14:37 GMT | Updated 18/04/2015 10:59 BST

The website Spiked Online recently ranked all of the universities in the UK based on how much censorship those on campus faced when it came to their freedom of speech. On the surface, it doesn't seem like too bad an idea: one of the biggest areas of society that speaks out against the country's wrongs is students.

Though things become a little sketchier when you realise that the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London is rated as one of the worst based on a single policy, which reads: "Homophobic propaganda, in the forms of written materials, graffiti, songs or speeches will not be tolerated."

In other words, because it is the University's policy not to allow gay staff or students to be subjected to abuse without reprisals for the perpetrator, it's been slammed by Spiked for its commitment to free speech. That is the only part of the University's charter that the website takes serious issue with to put SOAS into the worst category.

Suddenly, the survey doesn't look quite as concrete an idea as we first thought, but rather based on one huge misconception: the right to free speech is the right to say anything you want, to anyone you want, at any time you want, right? Wrong.

There are exceptions that Amnesty International, an organisation to which many people will look to for guidance on moral issues, lists on its website. In essence, free expression boils down to this: you can hold whatever views you like and you cannot be arrested by the state; however, there are consequences should you announce them to a public forum in certain circumstances.

For instance, the very idea that someone should be able to walk up to a black woman in the street and use a racist name without any reprimand is ludicrous. Stepping in front of a gay man and telling him that "poofs will burn in hell" is rightly against the law. In fact, using any slur towards any minority is correctly an exception to freedom of speech.

Nobody is stopping you from believing whatever twisted nonsense you like. But to actually vocalise it to somebody of that minority is nothing more than the act of a dick whose dickish behaviour is seeking to simply offend the person in question. The phrase, "I'm allowed to say that because of freedom of speech" does not and never will hold any water.

There's a quote from Stephen Fry that's floating around the internet that says "so fucking what" if someone is offended by what you say. To a point he's right, but it doesn't take into account the wider context: words or phrases or ideas that are deemed taboo are so because acceptance of them legitimises the discrimination.

To not punish somebody on the SOAS campus for brazenly walking up to a gay person and calling them an assortment of slurs related to their sexuality is to tell everybody else that it is fine to do that, which is why the policy exists. The SOAS terms and conditions do not prohibit reasoned debate, they prohibit abuse. We can't legitimise abuse then wonder why depression and suicides happen.

Perhaps, more alarmingly, though, is that according to Spiked's Free Speech Manifesto, the website is not in favour of libel laws. To put that into context, remove the possibility of a libel suit, and anybody can say anything about anyone in the media, true or not.

I could, for instance, say that Elton John has murdered five children and eaten their remains. Or I could say that David Beckham sleeps with animals every Thursday. Or perhaps that Carol Vorderman trips blind people in the street. All of these are categorically untrue and would rightly be punished by civil action if they were broadcast anywhere seriously.

It would mean that any part of the media could say whatever they liked about you and you would have no defence. The Uk's libel laws aren't perfect, but they're better than nothing.

It's impossible to say exactly, but it seems Spiked's staff listed on its about page are white, mainly male and the likelihood is the majority - if not all - are heterosexual. All of which are backgrounds that are rarely abused verbally because of what they are.

It's really easy to want everyone to be free say whatever whenever if you're not likely to suffer too much from the consequences.

The nub of the matter though is this: you aren't being censored. The times when freedom of speech is restricted are remarkably rare and they exist for the greater good, rather than to stop you insulting whoever you like. It's probably correct that the police get involved when someone tries to post bacon through the door of a mosque, even if they claim to be exercising their right to freedom of expression.

You have free speech, but there are still consequences for being a dick.