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.