Free Speech and the Paradox of Constraint

The principal challenge free-speech presents is that constraints are necessary to make it meaningful. Unconstrained free speech simply means speech. A discussion about free-speech concerns the necessary constraints that there should be and, importantly, who says what they are and why.

The necessity of constraints could be where a person deliberately causes panic. Shouting, ‘Bomb!’ on a crowded train is a reasonable British scenario. Who wouldn’t want constraints of free-speech if a person decided to shout, ‘Bomb!’ without a good reason? Bombs on trains in Britain aren’t remote possibilities. Bombs have, as a matter of fact, exploded on crowded trains, with devastating effect, causing deaths and severe injuries. Anyone shouting, ‘Bomb!’ on a crowded train is going to cause panic and, in all likelihood, injuries.

Is shouting, ‘Bomb!’ as a hoax exercising free-speech? If a person shouting ‘Bomb!’ claimed it was an exercise in free-speech, would it be legitimate to criticise? The paradox of unconstrained free-speech is that it wouldn’t. Anyone is entitled to say anything whenever they wish if constraints aren’t accepted.

On the face of it shouting, ‘Bomb!’ on a crowded train and causing panic and possible injury doesn’t feel like free-speech. Asserting, ‘Causing panic on a crowded train and causing possible injury isn’t free-speech,’ isn’t enough. The point has to be developed.

Theresa May, a surprising convert to the virtues of free-speech, said, “…freedom of speech is an important right in our democracy[however] annoying or uncomfortable.1 What does she mean? By “annoying or uncomfortable” she doesn’t mean causing panic, she means being irritated. So where’s the line between causing panic and irritating someone?

Mature democracies are robust. Does free-speech mean that promoting revolution is okay? The IRA and other ‘terrorist’ groups, were literally silenced in the mass media during the 1980s on the orders of the government.2 The ludicrous outcome was actors reading what would have been said. The government interpreted free speech as spoken speech and their attempt to stifle the IRA was thwarted. But were the IRA terrorists at all? The line between terrorism and freedom fighting is invisible. The subsequent careers of Martin Maginnis and Gerry Adams is the classic Northern Irish/British example.

More recently, Islamic ‘extremists’ have been vilified for expressing views which are discordant to British society. Theresa May said democracies need to accept free-speech, “[however] annoying or uncomfortable.” So would a call for adulterers to be stoned to death be an acceptable use of free-speech? Or, more tellingly, a social media website promoting the bombing of trains? Would that be, “…annoying or uncomfortable” for Mrs May? Or, would she perhaps call for police monitoring and and criminalisation. In 2014, Theresa May introduced a form of indoctrination in British schools, “what is expected….[is] promoting fundamental British values”3 When in office as Home Secretary, she stifled free-speech on university campuses saying, “…there was nothing ‘educational’ about allowing those with extremist views to speak at university campuses.”4 Theresa May’s concept of a university as a factory for producing conformists isn’t widely shared. Many people believe universities exist precisely to challenge the intellectual status quo by testing the validity of established beliefs, in whatever way.

How dangerous does free-speech have to be before it’s banned? Causing a direct threat to life seems plausible but is being, “…annoying or uncomfortable?Clearly not if Theresa May accepts that that’s the price of democracy. Of course, it might depend on who is being made ‘uncomfortable’. When Theresa May was Home Secretary she didn’t like being challenged and acted accordingly. So perhaps she wasn’t the best person to make the rules about constraint.

The paradox of free-speech is that it should be constrained. Unfortunately those deciding what free-speech constraints should be are deeply involved in protecting themselves. Who polices the police? Theresa May is in favour of free-speech now she’s no longer a front line politician. How keen are Boris Johnson or Priti Patel?

Notes

1 Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill – Monday 15 March 2021 – Hansard – UK Parliament columns 77-8

2 From October 1988 to September 1994 the British government banned broadcasts of the voices of representatives from Sinn Féin and several Irish republican and, loyalist groups on television and radio in the United Kingdom (UK) see 1988–1994 British broadcasting voice restrictions – Wikipedia

3 Advice template (publishing.service.gov.uk) p3

4 Theresa May’s war on free-speech extremists – spiked (spiked-online.com)

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