A slow death by a thousand cuts is still a death. Free speech is regarded by many as a fundamental right because it is the guardian of free thought. If you are free to say what you think, you are free to think. By constraining free speech, we automatically constrain free thought. Rather than considering an idea on merit, if we worry instead about the reaction of the legal system or murderous zealots, there is a danger that we self-censor, stop questioning, and stop pushing boundaries. Gradually those boundaries will encroach until we only think and say what we are told is completely safe.
The recent atrocities in Paris demonstrate that zealots willing to commit murder over words or pictures have not been consigned to the dustbin of history. A number of commentators - including the Pope - suggested that causing offence justifies an act of violence. Many posed the question; how can we have free speech in a tolerant, multi-cultural society? It is precisely because we want a tolerant, multi-cultural society that the right to free speech must be absolute. Voltaire's famous words,
"I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it"are ones we should live by. To do otherwise is to live in fear.
There are no ideas that we should be afraid of. I abhor racism in any form. I was subjected to racial abuse growing up, but I would defend the right of a racist to freely air his or her views. Racism usually masks some underlying issue, and to suppress it simply forces people to operate beneath the radar and means that those underlying issues are never properly addressed.
Likewise, religion. If a faith is truly strong, it has nothing to fear from comedians and cartoonists. Instead of retaliating over a remark about his mother, the Pope might want to consider turning the other cheek. Retaliation and repression are signs of weakness, of a lack of confidence in one's ideas. There is no right not to be offended, because we can always walk away, we can change the channel, we can choose not to buy a particular magazine, we can choose to associate with different people. The moment society begins to decide what is offensive, we slip towards totalitarianism. Who decides what is deemed offensive? Are there degrees of offensiveness? How do we punish offensiveness? What do we do to protect particularly sensitive people? Or particularly violent people?
Violent extremists aren't our only concern. The government is increasingly prosecuting people for things they publish online. As a writer, I travel far and wide for inspiration. A couple of years ago, someone recommended I visit Chris Spivey's website, which is packed with weird and wild conspiracy theories. If Chris is guilty of a crime it is of crediting the 'powers that be' with too much competence. Chris believes that Lee Rigby's horrendous murder was a false flag operation orchestrated by the government. It's a ludicrous and outrageous theory that goes way beyond the X-Files, but because of his theory, Chris is currently being prosecuted and faces four counts that each carry a maximum sentence of six months in prison.
Defending the rational or respectable is easy. Free speech is designed to protect those who push the limits of acceptability. Chris has upset and offended a number of people. Two of the counts he faces relate to charges of harassment without violence under the Protection from Harassment Act, 1997, for things he posted on Facebook about Lee Rigby and his family. Chris has suggested things that are outlandish and upsetting and he does so in the most offensive terms, but should he be facing six months in prison?
The other two charges relate to offenses under Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which has been used to successfully prosecute thousands of people, many of whom have served prison terms for things they have posted on Facebook or Twitter.
Prosecuting thousands of people and depriving them of liberty is a draconian response to ill-informed, bigoted or offensive words. It is hard to see how society is harmed by allowing people, however stupid or ill-informed, to express ridiculous or offensive views, but it is very easy to see how society will be harmed by continuing to prosecute such people. The boundaries will constantly edge inwards until they reach the bland centre, where we all think and say pleasant things that the courts, and ultimately, the government of the day, approve of. Such control is the very essence of a totalitarian regime.
Genuine harassment, intimidation, threats of violence, stalking - these are all crimes that merit state intervention. Where there is an element of menace or a threat to a person's well being or safety, it is right that the legal system intervenes. But we don't need protection from stupid or offensive people. They're the ones we should be seeking to protect, because by safeguarding the margins, we ensure that we're all free to express ourselves and to explore, exchange, and test ideas to their proper conclusion.
Section 127 is particularly worrying, because anyone writing grossly offensive things on Twitter or Facebook can be prosecuted and face prison. Do you know what the courts regard as grossly offensive? You might want to investigate before you next tweet. And to help concentrate your mind, here's a video of the police battering down Chris Spivey's front door to arrest him for something he wrote.
Chris Spivey's Arrest