trafalagar square protest

RightsInfo: Free Speech And Why It Matters

The brilliant and essential new website Rights Info, developed by the team behind the equally indispensable UK Human Rights Blog, asked me to write a guest post on the concept of free speech.  The article was part of a week long series on the right to freedom of expression.  In previous weeks the site has focused on other human rights, like privacy.


Freedom of Expression is an ‘enabling right’.  It is the human right that allows people to secure and defend all the other human rights.  Without an unfettered right to speak, how could you complain about ill-treatment at the hands of the state?  Without free speech, how could you organise to associate with others?  Without free speech, how could you express your religious beliefs?  Without free speech, how can journalists hold big business and politicians to account?

Freedom of expression is not just a tool for enforcing other rights.  It enables human flourishing and is therefore an end in itself. This is because freedom of expression is more than just the right to speak freely.  It includes other kinds of activity too. The freedom to write, to publish, to paint and to perform. The freedom to record voice, music and song and to disseminate the recordings. Crucially, freedom of expression also includes the right to receive information too: the freedom to read, to watch and to listen. In the Internet age, freedom of expression includes the freedom to share, too.

Finally, freedom of expression includes the right not speak, if you disagree with the words that others want you to say.  Together, these activities we call ‘expression’ drive human interaction.  Any interference in freedom of expression curtails culture and postpones politics.

Debate me, argue with me

There is inherent value in human discussion, debate and argument. The progress of our cultures and our species depends on it. The suppression of ideas causes complacency and stagnation. It is always better for ideas to be out in the open where they can be developed, or discredited, as the case may be. Bottle up a bad idea and it usually develops, unchallenged, into an even worse one.  Far better to keep the bad ideas out in the open, where criticism and ridicule will cause them to wither.

 Many people like to claim they support freedom of expression, and then go on to say ‘but’… They place caveats on the idea, and say that with freedom of expression comes ‘responsibilities’.  That is a confused approach, because we have plenty of other laws that place responsibilities upon us.  Human rights are a special type of law, because they govern how the state behaves towards its citizens, not how citizens must behave towards each other. 

Free speech must include the right say things that other people may not wish to hear, and free speech with conditions is no free speech at all. Words that shock are very often essential: they might be the only way to make people listen or to understand the importance of what is being said. Whether or not you use offensive language is a matter of manners and style: the law has no place in regulating insulting speech. Laws that regulate offensive speech give veto power to those with the thinnest skins. Paradoxically, it is often those in positions of political or religious power who are the quickest to take offence.

Counter-speech

Freedom of expression also includes ‘counter-speech’ – the right to answer back.  What many people label ‘political correctness’ is in fact the emboldened voices of previously silenced groups, telling those in positions of traditional power why they are wrong. When privileged people are challenged, they mistakenly believe that they are being censored. They are not. Instead, they are merely being told that they are wrong!  Free speech means no-one gets to have the last word.

Counter-speech is an important concept, because it provides an answer to the perennial free speech conundrum: what do we do about people who use their freedom of expression to spout racist or bigoted views? The answer to unpleasant free speech can only be more free speech! Those who value their freedom of expression can take advantage of that right, to challenge and counter harmful ideologies. This might mean signing a petition, attending a protest, sharing a link on Facebook… or simply, writing: a tweet, a blog, a book. 

All of these acts are free expression in action, which is why in authoritarian countries, such activities will very often land you in trouble… or even in prison. Dictators do not like to be challenged.  For over ninety years, English PEN activists have exercised their own freedom of expression in support of people who have been imprisoned or attacked because of what they have written.

As a literary charity, English PEN does more than campaign. It also runs events, giving a platform to diverse authors; outreach workshops, bringing literature to marginalised communities; and a translation programme, funding the publication of new literature from other languages.  Not only do these activities enrich our culture, but they build bridges and bonds between communities.  And they are all enabled by the right to freedom of expression.

Find out more about Freedom of Speech on Rights Info

Anyone calling for candidates to drop out of the Labour Leadership race is an innumerate idiot

A quick point, if I may: You know how Jeremy Corbyn is now 20 points ahead of his rivals, and some people are urging the lesser candidates to consolidate behind a single Anyone-But-Jeremy candidate?

That’s stupid and wrong.

Its stupid because the election is being conducted on an Alternative Vote system.  The electors rank the candidates in order of preference.  The candidate with the lowest number of votes is eliminated and their votes are divided up amongst the remaining candidates.  That process is repeated until one candidate has a majoirty.

Mathematically, that is exactly the same as if the lesser candidates had pulled out… but with one important exception: its more democratic.

The ‘drop out’ suggestion is also morally wrong.  With the AV system, each elector gets to express a preference for who drops out and in what order.  That’s far better approach than a candidate being peer-pressured or media-pressured into dropping out mid-campaign, which is anti-democratic and makes the entire contest a hostage to bad opinion polling.

The fact that people are calling for the poorly polling candidates shows that they are stuck in a First Past The Post mentality, even though the election is being run with more sophisticated and fairer rules.

Angel Window by Aidan McRae Thomson

The Pragmatic Idealism of Team Corbyn

How irritating.  I had drafted a short, blistering blog about how the NHS, the sacred cow of British politics, is a massive socialist project.  “If the NHS did not exist”, I would have said, “none of the Labour leadership candidates but Jeremy Corbyn would dare suggest we invent it”… And when he did, everyone (other candidates, the Tories, the media and yes, much of the British public) would have accused him of being a bonkers socialist, happy to squander billions of pounds of taxpayers money. Continue reading The Pragmatic Idealism of Team Corbyn

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What if it’s all just cyclical?

More banter from the political past today as John Prescott criticised Tony Blair’s “get a transplant” jibe.

Meanwhile, Margaret Beckett has somehow branded herself a ‘moron’ because she was one of Jeremy Corbyn’s sponsors, nominating-but-not supporting him so the Labour Party could have a debate.

Well, a debate is being had.  A wider range of policies are being debated and the other candidates have found they are unable to triangulate their way to a victory on points. The contest is going to be far more interesting than any that has gone before and—here’s a radical thought—it could be that this moment of public disunity and ill-tempered argument could end up strengthening the eventual winner. Survival Of The Fittest, Whatever Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger, &cetera.
Continue reading What if it’s all just cyclical?

Can Labour give the country what it wants?

Tony Blair gave a speech today, warning the post-defeat Labour Party of a lurch to the left.  Meanwhile, the most left wing of the four Labour Party leadership candidates, Jeremy Corbyn, is apparently leading the polls.

I find the pragmatism of the centrists in the Labour Party to be enticing.  If you want to win power and achieve social justice, they say, there is no point in positioning yourself too far away from the electorate.  To place Jeremy Corbyn at the top of the Labour Party is to distance the party from the rest of Britain.  And that means further election defeats.  Instead, the answer is to be more centrist, more Blairite, because at least that is where the rest of the country sits. Continue reading Can Labour give the country what it wants?

Cory Doctorow, China Mieville, Robert Sharp

Cory Doctorow and China Mieville in Conversation in 2010

I am rather shocked by the realisation that the discussion I chaired with authors Cory Doctorow and China Mieville was exactly five years ago today.

I recall that a couple of short excerpts from the event were included in a podcast at the time, but the entire discussion was never posted anywhere for people who could not attend.  Happily, yrstrly took a recording of the discussion on my phone and I post it here (and on Soundcloud) for posterity. Continue reading Cory Doctorow and China Mieville in Conversation in 2010

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Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Last week I spoke at the launch of Draw The Line Here, the book of cartoons published by English PEN in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

I touched on a few things that I have already noted here: the punctured optimism after the 7/7 bombings, for example.  I also explicity noted the fact that, on the day after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, all but two British newspapers carried the same terrible image of the murdered policeman Ahmed Merabet, yet only those same two newspapers (The Guardian and The Independent) felt able to reproduce the relatively benign image of Mohammed on the cover of Charlie Hebdo the following week.

Amazingly, I also encountered a heckler during the speech!  He protested that the incredibly crass cartoons that sometimes found their way into the pages of Charlie Hebdo were not worth defending.  I unequivocally disagreed.

A recording of my speech is embedded below (and also on SoundCloud). Continue reading Heckled about Free Speech and Charlie Hebdo

Cartoon by Chris Burke, used with permission

‘Draw the Line Here’ Mocks the Men in Masks

Another article on Huffington Post, published yesterday.  I’ll write something on the launch event too at some point soon.


Today we mark the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 terrorist attacks on the London transport system, which killed 52 people. It’s also exactly six months since the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris, in which 12 people were murdered.

The public response to both these outrages was an overt show of defiance to the terrorists. In the days after the London bombings people shared ‘We Are Not Afraid’ images and continued to ride the tube. Immediately after the Paris attacks, ‘Je Suis Charlie‘ became a message of solidarity and a statement that we will not be scared into silence.

The Paris killings also inspired artists to pick up their pens, pencils and paint brushes. Some of the most eloquent responses to the tragedy were not words, but pictures. A new book, Draw The Line Here, which brings together over a hundred such cartoons, will be launched today in London. Continue reading ‘Draw the Line Here’ Mocks the Men in Masks

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How Gay Marriage Persuaded Me To Get A Straight Marriage*

Hooray for five ninths of the Supreme Court of the United States of America!  Today the Court ruled that bans on same sex marriage are unconstitutional.  Same-sex marriage, which was already legal in many states, is now legal throughout the USA.

Blogger and gay marriage advocate Andrew Sullivan has returned to blogging to welcome the news.  He’s been agitating for this since 1989.

Opponents of same sex marriage often claim that it will somehow undermine straight marriage.  That’s nonsense.  In fact, I think the opposite is true.  Here’s why. Continue reading How Gay Marriage Persuaded Me To Get A Straight Marriage*