Just how important is Freedom of Speech to you? Your civil right to say- and think- whatever you want? I imagine you’re going to read this, squint a bit, laugh at my naivety and say “very” in that mocking ‘what a ridiculous question’ tone of voice; but in the 21st Century can total Freedom of Speech be dangerous? Can it be guaranteed? Is there a limit on what is and is not appropriate to say out loud? Or are we all just a little bit…well too sensitive to the words of others.
Imagine- for instance- you’re sat on a crowded London central line train and an attractive brunette unexpectedly starts screaming “where are you from?” repeatedly; threateningly. I’m sure some of you are amongst the 200,000 viewers of the YouTube clip depicting Jacqueline Woodhouse’s seven minute racist rant at a carriage full of people; amongst them Mr Jutta, returning home from burying a loved one. It’s shocking. It’s enough to make you sit back and take another look at our beloved England and ask, “in the 21st century, are we still so prejudiced?”. Probably. Most likely. There’s certainly some of us out there. Isn’t there? Yes- it may well have been a drunken rant for which she is sorry, for which she has been punished and humiliated for, but subsequently have we infringed her right to Freedom of Speech by imposing a 21 month prison sentence on her? After all isn’t she free to express her opinion?
Now I’m not condoning racism. Far from it. But it is just one of the many issues that arise when discussing our right to Freedom of Speech. Can you really have it? Well the Goverment would argue yes- true to form, they defend every right and freedom they allow us, and quietly remind us that we are lucky to have them at all. God forbid we were in one of those undemocratic countries… but in all honesty- as much as I hate to say it, we British do currently enjoy extensive rights to Freedom of Speech when compared to the levels of expression citizens of many other countries are legally entitled to. However like most things in life our right to Freedom of Speech does come with some pretty important requirements of those who wish to flex it. Think of it like university requirements, you only get your place if you meet the grade. Well that’s Freedom of Speech, or at least the legislation surrounding it. You only get to use it without punishment if it excludes “threatening, abusive or insulting speech or behaviour likely to cause breach of the peace”, amongst other exceptions.
I guess Miss Woodhouse didn’t get the memo.
She pleaded guilty. But how many of us are guilty of thinking something we couldn’t possibly ever say without causing some offence? How many of us engage in “ethnic banter”, make inappropriate jokes, say things we shouldn’t. Okay, our thoughts, text messages and emails may not fall specifically under Freedom of Speech, but what about Freedom of Expression? Are they so different? Is it okay to write something but not say it out loud? I remember- not so proudly- sending an email to a friend slagging of a “frenemy” who happened to be one of those unfortunate breeds of girls whose faces are orange, neck is white, and eyebrows non existent. There was some forwarding of said email, and before I knew it, there were racist jokes being typed out left right and centre. Did this girl really look like a terrorist? No. Did she truly look like she’d rob your elderly grandmother to buy fifteen bottles of bleach? Not at all. But it was a joke. It didn’t matter…right? Well wrong. In a society thats slowly starting to resemble Orwell’s Big Brother state, where the likelihood of a £2 billion Government project to snoop through emails, texts and phone records becomes a distinct possibility- Freedom of Speech seems to be disappearing off into the distance, waving at us with a taunting “you wont even notice I’m gone!”; and the sad truth is, we probably won’t. We won’t notice until Freedom of Speech has completely and utterly disappeared. Until today’s kids are Grandparents, telling their disbelieving grandchildren of a time they could say, text, think, whatever they wanted without the fear of reprimand.
“The Government can’t do that” I hear you say, but sadly you’re wrong. Yes it’s undemocratic, it’s an invasion of privacy, we are part of the EU and there are entrenched Human Rights laws. But the Uk constitution is uncodified, meaning it can be easily amended, and with the EU in its current sticky climate Freedom of Speech can in effect be taken away. So…just how important is Freedom of Speech to you?