Free speech is fundamental because without it one cannot have any other liberties. One cannot claim or exercise one’s other liberties, or defend them when attacked; one cannot defend oneself when accused, or accuse those who do one wrong; one cannot have democracy in which information views and policies are expressed, debated and challenged; one cannot have education worth the name, if there are things that cannot be said; one cannot express one’s attitudes, needs, feelings, responses, anger, criticism, support, approval or beliefs; one cannot ask all the questions one needs to or would like to; and for all these reasons, without free speech one would be in a prison made of enforced silence and averted thought on important matters – AC Grayling.
The push for free speech is in a state of perpetual motion. Sometimes the term seems contradictory given that speech is rarely free, coming with costs which the censors are trying to raise all the time in their bid to price it out of the marketplace of ideas. Censorship is invariably an assault on democracy in that it seeks to deny the public access to information with which it might make more informed decisions. The totalitarian alone, whether of the right or the left, thinks that there is a one size fits all perspective which everybody should be squeezed into. Something is pronounced this or that and no further discussion is needed. They are never short of reasons as to why this must be so yet deny the means by which it can be tested – the raising of a critical alternative opinion – and so serve to deny their pronouncement any validation other than coercion, physical or otherwise. It is ultimately self-defeating in that the very lack of validation adds momentum to the drive for free speech which the totalitarians are so hostile to from the outset.
It makes no sense to think that those who favour free speech agree with the content of that speech. That would mean agreeing with everything that is said. Who in the world does that? Free speech advocates merely think that something is better said than suppressed. As the British philosopher and humanist AC Grayling argues in outlining the dangers of the power to silence:
give any government, any security service, any policing authority, any special interest group such as a religious organisation or a political party, any prude or moraliser, any zealot of any kind, the power to shut someone else up, and they will leap at it with alacrity.
How often have we been forced to bear witness to that in the course of our lives?
In politics and religion in particular there is a definite willingness to argue that free speech is not an absolute. From that foothold and guided by that logic the push against free speech expands relentlessly to the point where the censor acquires absolute power over what is said or not said. What is really meant by free speech not being an absolute is that free speech is to be absolutely abhorred.
About three years ago I was once asked would I place limits on free speech. My answer was:
Well, my personal view is, ‘would I say anything that would directly lead to your death?’ No, I would not. Of course there are boundaries in that sense. Nevertheless, I am totally distrustful of the ‘Free Speech, but…’ school. .. what I tend to do is identify with a purely ‘Free Speech’ impulse and I’m always looking for ways to push out the boundaries and expand ‘Free Speech’. There are enough people trying to impose boundaries as it is, so I don’t go looking for them. I accept that ‘Free Speech’ is not an absolute, but I don’t go searching for the limits. That’s the vocation of the censor not the writer.
It was more of a holding answer. I had not at any time sat down to consider the parameters in any great detail. I realised that the Achilles heel of the free speech perspective was any claim for absolutism on its behalf. It is a position so inflexible that it lacks the suppleness to meet the challenge posed by nuance and special circumstance.
In a very insightful piece in Index on Censorship, AC Grayling dealt with the question of how the absolute exists in relation to free speech. Grayling is the most lucid of thinkers and his ability to explain concepts is simplicity itself.
Because it can do harm, and because it can be used irresponsibly, there has to be an understanding of when free speech has to be constrained. But given its fundamental importance, the default has to be that free speech is inviolate except … where the dots are filled in with a specific, strictly limited, case-by-case, powerfully justified, one-off set of utterly compelling reasons why in this particular situation alone there must be a restraint on speech. Note the words specific strictly limited case-by-case powerfully justified one-off utterly compelling this particular situation alone.
That seems to me to be the caveat that functions as the paradox keeping free speech virtually inviolable by denying it the arrogance of absolutism. Or put more simply, it is the exception that proves the rule. And without that rule the Tom Stoppard humour no longer seems so humourous: 'I agree with everything you say, but I would attack to the death your right to say it.'