Freedom to be offended

Freedom of speech. An absolutely essential human right, and yet it seems to be such a difficult concept for many to grasp. People think free speech applies to themselves and no one else. Anyone that opposes them is fair game to be silenced.

To paraphrase Morbo the news monster, “Censorship does not work like that!”

According to reports, yesterday Facebook removed the EDL’s page. The EDL Facebook page had been “Liked” by some 80,000 people, and was frequently home to comments showing racist, bigoted views and discussing some quite disgusting concepts and behaviour. Even so, I cannot celebrate its removal. How is it right that people on the left complain when Facebook pages for anti-cuts protests and events are removed, yet celebrate when the same thing happens to the EDL?

In discussions about this some people have pointed out that the EDL page hosted discussions of illegal behaviour. It might have done. “Hate speech” is now illegal in the UK. Beating up people and harassment are illegal too. But is it right to shut down discussions, even of illegal behaviour? That sounds like thought crime to me. We have a right to freedom of association, to freedom of religion, and freedom of speech. By extension, we have a right to hold whatever opinions we want, even if they are repellent to most people. Surely freedom to associate with whoever we like must mean that we have freedom to discuss whatever we like? How can discussion of a crime be a crime? Even if someone is discussing plans for a crime, they have not actually done anything, and I believe they should not be arrested until they show that they are about to commit those actions and not just fantasise about them.

I must also point out that the various Facebook pages set up to organise anti-cuts protests have also sometimes discussed illegal behaviour. Civil disobedience in various forms often means breaking the law – by definition illegal! Yet people rail against the removal of these pages by Facebook but demand the removal of the EDL page. It does not work like that!

The issue of government censorship versus private censorship is a problem. Facebook is a privately owned platform and many people are quick to point out that freedom of speech does not apply as everyone that uses it had in theory to agree to the terms and conditions. This is true, but while in law obligations to facilitate free speech usually only apply to government, I think when a service becomes as large as Facebook and a de-facto standard, different rules must apply. While we have private services that host so much public discourse, this is something that we must address. I suspect that censorship on private services happens as much out of a fear of being sued as of a desire to shut down opposing views.

I worry that here in the UK we are losing our freedom of speech. We have the European Convention of Human Rights, but right-wing politicians like to blame it for all our ills and demand that we scrap it. Now we have laws against hate speech, and I can see the reasons for preventing harassment and bullying, but if those are already crimes, why do we need laws to make it illegal to voice disagreement with someone?

Ultimately, freedom of speech applies to all or it applies to no one. There is no middle ground. If someone decides to censor what some people say, then there is no guarantee that anything at all can be said. Someone somewhere has to make the decision on what to censor, and that decision will be shaped by their own opinions and political views. The alternative to freedom of speech is suppression of dissenting views by whoever is the most powerful. If you have a view that the establishment doesn’t like, you cannot celebrate censorship without endangering your own cause.

Author: Latentexistence

The world is broken and I can't fix it because I am broken. I can, however, rant about it all and this is where I do that when I can get my thoughts together. Most of the time you'll find my words on Twitter rather than here though. I sometimes write for Where's The Benefit too.

8 thoughts on “Freedom to be offended”

  1. “But is it right to shut down discussions, even of illegal behaviour? That sounds like thought crime to me. […] How can discussion of a crime be a crime?”

    That’s a huge leap to make there – when one publishes text online that’s designed to stir up racial hatred, that’s illegal. We’re not talking about people discussing illegal behaviour, we’re talking about them talking and in doing so acting illegally. That’s not thought crime, that’s just crime. People can still think as they wish, nobody is claiming otherwise.

    If you want a simple counter-example, conspiracy to commit murder is quite obviously nothing more than discussion of a crime. Still highly illegal.

    When the content of a website seeks to oppress minorities through intimidation, as EDL content so often does, then I consider that to be a greater infringement of rights than that caused by censorship. So when that content is removed, I won’t shed a tear.

    “Now we have laws against hate speech, and I can see the reasons for preventing harassment and bullying, but if those are already crimes, why do we need laws to make it illegal to voice disagreement with someone?”

    That’s a straw man, there is no law against voicing disagreement with somebody. The EDL certainly aren’t being punished for “disagreeing” with anything, it is the way in which they disagree and the implicit violence within that which creates an issue. It is entirely possible to have rational discussions about any topic that exists without resorting to illegal hate speech, and as such I don’t consider hate speech laws to be a barrier to that free discussion.

    1. I believe what you are saying is that it is acceptable to censor hate speech, whatever that is. If so, please accept it for what it is, and admit that you are arguing for censorship.

      1. It reads like you’re trying to trap me or something, but at no point did I say I wasn’t arguing for censorship.

        Like I said, there are greater evils that can be committed by permitting any and all speech than the evil of censorship. Provided that such (limited) censorship does not prevent the free and open discussion of ideas, but does constrain the ability of extremists to whip up hatred, then I’m happy with it. It’s just about finding the right balance.

        Censorship comes in many forms. Laws concerning fraud are a form of censorship, because they constrain your ability to lie freely in the pursuit of profit. Or make claims you know to be false in election leaflets in order to smear an opponent. These are all constraints on true free speech, and are all tolerated because they prevent a greater evil.

        1. Sorry, that wasn’t meant as a trap. I should have continued and asked when that censorship could be justified. Which you have answered anyway. Typing on a phone doesn’t inspire long replies!

  2. I often wonder if it isnt good to let these people spout their vitriolic bullshit so that rational human beings can see the reality behind an organisation like the EDL. I also think in terms of monitoring behaviours, it can be beneficial to have such discussions on an open forum where police can see what’s being said by who.

    I do not agree with censorship and feel that freedom of speech needs to allow those with minority voices to be heard too (and in that counts the EDL also) however inciting hate crimes and violence goes beyond freedom of speech and enters new territory.

    Human rights including right to association extends only in so far as legality is concerned and the list of proscribed groups under the terrorism act grows every year which basically means such groups are exempt from this right. While on the whole I agree with what you are saying, I am curious to know whether the EDL’s right to association and freedom of speech goes further than the rest of the country’s right to a peaceful existence free from violence and harm?

  3. Should ‘hate speech’ be legal? Absolutely. The right to not just have but state an opinion, however offensive others might find it, is vital. Otherwise you have a self-appointed group of probably well-meaning people deciding what is and isn’t acceptable for you to say on the basis of whether what you say accords with their own beliefs. And that’s dangerous.

    But as others have said, it enters new territory when you’re specifically and directly calling for illegal acts. Now, it seems to me that this should have to be explicit, and therefore easy to get round – there’s an Islamist preacher, can’t remember who, who says things along the lines of ‘If I called for homosexuals to be executed I could be arrested’. By saying that he’s strongly implying he wants homosexuals to be executed, but when you start trying to delve into interpretations of words you’re in very tricky territory.

    It might seem strange to believe incitement should be illegal but for there to be such an easy get-out, but I think it’s the only way to protect freedom of speech while recognising incitement should be illegal.

  4. I realise that I need to take a more nuanced view about this. Obviously, freedoms can only go as far as they don’t impinge on other people’s rights and freedoms. I don’t include any right not to be offended in that, however.

    I think when it comes to discussions of illegal activities, there is a difference between fantasy and actual planning. I don’t think the police should ever move in unless they know that an illegal activity is actively being planned or about to happen. If this means that they can’t act as quickly as they would like, so be it.

    I think that threats, intimidation and harassment should be curtailed, so I guess that is censorship that I would support. But merely hating someone should not be illegal.

  5. “I think when a service becomes as large as Facebook and a de-facto standard, different rules must apply.”

    We have monopolies on-line that would never have been allowed in the real world. The rules of the game are still being worked out, but it seems strange to me that, for example, my only realistic choice of e-currency in many situations is PayPal. If banks were that monopolistic, action would be taken.

    Amazon makes Tesco look like a kitten, Google now takes more UK advertising money than ITV, and as for eBay…

    So Facebook and censorship is one tiny tiny part of a huge issue – that issue being that the net is still developing like the wild west, even though it’s such a huge part of so many lives.

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