Last month I was privileged enough to participate in the annual House of Lords Chamber Debate. It’s the one time during the year when people who are not members of the House of Lords are allowed to sit on its benches and debate.
This year the debate was about free speech and its limits. I made a short contribution about the practicalities of censorship and surveillance, and said that free speech should be about dialogue and conversation.
Although I was absolutely thrilled to speak in the chamber, the real value for me came from hearing how other people view the issues of free speech, censorship, and surveillance. I have been campaigning on free speech issues for almost eight years now, and yet I heard some new rhetorical formulations that I plan to work into my own arguments on this issue.
Chief among these was actually the first contribution, by Patrick Clarke of St Francies Xavier school in Liverpool. He said:
… if people believe they are free to express themselves in whichever way they want within the public sphere, without being gagged by the state, they are much more likely to buy in to that democratic system, and believe that that system is the best form of government and society. This ensures, ladies and gentleman, that the system survives and is protected from the attempts of terrorists to disrupt that system and precipitate its collapse.
When Patrick speaks of terrorists, I think he means two things. First, that those who are free to speak are less likely to become terrorists. But second, that when terrorism strikes, a strong support for the democratic system from all corners, even among those saying unpopular things, can unite a country.
This idea of democratic buy in is a good formulation of one of the most powerful reasons to support free speech. I have already appropriated the phrase in my own advocacy.
I also like the phrase at the end of his contribution: “We must not blunt the sword of free speech”. It reminds me of the cartoons in English PEN’s book Draw The Line Here, many of which riff on the pen as weapon metaphor.