Sunday 4 December 2011

Pesky free speech

Recently the question of freedom of people to have thoughts and express them has come up on several occasions. Most notably in the reactions to "racist tram woman" and Jeremy Clarkson's 'joke' about strikers. After this I posted that I was unequivocal in my support for free speech and got some interesting reactions such as "I was all set to agree with your status until I thought about Westboro Baptist Church picketing the funerals of AIDS victims" and "What if he'd [Clarkson] said all Jews should be shot in front of their families?  Should we defend his 'right' to make that 'joke' ?". These and more did make me think very long and hard about my position. The point however is that when what someone is saying or joking about[1] is disagreeable is precisely the point where defending their right to say it is important, very few attacks on freedom of speech are over statements on how fluffy are kittens.
None of this is to say that a right to freedom of speech should imply freedom of action or any right to intrude or breach privacy. I see no inconsistency in my position and at the same time disagreeing with Paul McMullan's stance that "privacy is for paedos". Any attempt to suggest that publishing puerile tittle-tattle based on stolen information is fundamentally free speech should get short shrift (genuine public interest journalism of course being an entirely different kettle of fish).
The right to free speech should also not be a licence for abuse and on top of that there is the tricky middle ground of incitement: it is another of those Yes Minister irregular declensions. 'I hold that [minority group] are a blight, he has made a speech saying the masses should rise up against [minority group] while they have been arrested for an offense under the 1986 Public Order Act as amended.'[2] At this point we have to rely on the criminal justice system to categorise when people have stopped 'speaking' and started, for example, causing 'harassment, alarm or distress' . I'm not going to say that how this works and the legislation underpinning it can't currently be improved upon, and as it is a human process it will never be perfect, but the human involvement in deciding these things is vital.

The last word goes to @Erica_Jane_MP
"solution to bad speech is more speech. Doesn't mean you can't rant and shout and despise the speech. But not ban it."

[1] Because Clarkson was trying to be funny (my use of quote marks round the word joke was because he failed) two things happened a) lots of comedians were defending his right to say what he did, b) parallels were made with Paul Chambers
[2] My apologies to Jay and Lynn

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