ED2016 Columns ED2016 Spoken Word ED2016 Week3 Edition

Chris Cooke: The tricky task of defending free speech

By | Published on Tuesday 23 August 2016

Chris Cooke

ThreeWeeks Editor Chris Cooke considers the challenges of defending free speech as he prepares to deliver his Free Speech at the Fringe once again.

The principle of free speech under English law used to run something like this: you have the right to free speech except when you don’t have the right to free speech. Which is helpful.

Things changed in 1998 with Tony Blair’s Human Rights Act, which finally incorporated the European Convention On Human Rights into UK law. Of course, the UK had been obliged to protect those rights since ratifying the Convention in the 1950s, but – credit where it’s due – Blair integrated them into the law of the land. And that included the right to ‘freedom of expression’ contained within Article Ten of the Convention.

Though even Article Ten provides some limitations of the right to free speech. For example, on the grounds of national security, territorial integrity or public safety. Or maybe to prevent disorder. Or some sort of crime. Or to protect health. Or morals, whatever that means. Or to protect reputations. Or to stop the spreading of secrets received in confidence. Or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

It’s quite a wide list of exceptions which means that the principle of free speech today basically runs something like this: you have the right to free speech except when you don’t have the right to free speech. Which is helpful.

Though, actually, it’s often not the formal limitations placed on free speech by government and the law that have the most impact. Social conventions, norms and pressures also limit what we can say and where we can say it. Sometimes for the better. Other times for the worse. And this is where it gets complicated.

As a journalist and a publisher, my default position is that free speech is both a fundamental human right and a crucial component of a functioning democracy, and my default opinion is that free speech is pretty much always worth defending, even beyond Article Ten. Which is basically code for “who the hell are you to tell me what to say?” Or, as Voltaire never said, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it”.

But defending everyone’s right to free speech can be tricky, because it means defending the free speech rights of idiots. And defending the rights of idiots is tiring and, at times, embarrassing. I’ve never worked for a tabloid newspaper, I’d never want to work for a tabloid newspaper and I don’t avidly read any tabloid newspapers. Yet when your default opinion is that free speech is pretty much always worth defending, you find yourself climbing on a soap box to defend whatever idiotic thing some idiotic tabloid newspaper just said.

And then there is the OOFH Brigade. “Outrageous opinions for hire”. Pretend journalists who have worked out that there’s good money to be made by simply taking a contentious position on whatever the story of the day might be. And simply picking whatever viewpoint will rile at least 50% your audience saves you from having to do any actual research on which to viewpoint to take. Yet the OOFH Brigade is just exercising that right to freedom of expression, so I guess I’m obliged to defend this particular pack of idiots too, whenever there is a chorus of “boycott!”, “sack them!” and “resign!” over whatever idiotic thing they just said.

And then, of course, there are the trolls, internet code for bullies. This is where it gets particularly tricky, because while I don’t believe people have the automatic right to not be offended, they clearly have the automatic right not to be bullied. So if someone uses their free speech right to offend, fair game. But if someone uses their free speech right to bully, OK, game over. But who decides when the offending becomes bullying?

My point is this. Defending free speech can be a challenge, yet it’s a challenge I am usually willing to tackle, in defence of my default position, that free speech is both a fundamental human right and a crucial component of a functioning democracy. So how come, in 2014, I started arguing that British radio should have banned the pop song ‘Blurred Lines’?

That’s the contradiction I explore in my free speech on free speech, which I first performed here at the Fringe last year, and which I will be delivering once again later this week, in part so I can record it for a podcast. In it I explain in more detail what the law actually says about freedom of expression, and I discuss what I consider to be the top five free speech controversies: privacy, protest, offence, belief and the bullies. I’ll then endeavour to explain why, when it comes to a pop song written by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, my default position falls down.

It would be great if you could join me. You can book free tickets from chriscookesfreespeech.com.

‘Chris Cooke’s Free Speech’ was performed at theSpace @ Symposium Hall at Edinburgh Festival 2016.



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