Speak, libertyby Diane Roberts / April 21, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
Freedom of speech has always been a vexed, even dangerous, business. Socrates questioned the gods and earned himself a swift trip across the Styx. Here we are, 2,400 years later, and western liberal democracies still struggle over how much free speech is healthy, whether there should be any sort of bridle on it and, now, how to deal with the ever-growing electronic media. Is shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre worse than a Daily Mail story blaming working women for the rise in autism, or Fox News insisting that Birmingham has succumbed to radical Islam to the point that non-Muslims don’t dare breach the A4540? Should government suppress “offensive” speech, say, Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary as a black woman with a varnished lump of elephant dung on one breast, David Irving’s Holocaust-denying rants, or Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad? Is the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford a hurtful endorsement of imperialism or merely a historical artefact? And who decides?
The theory and the practice of free speech don’t always join up. In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Anarchy with a no-holds-b…