How Important Is Freedom of Expression?

In November 2012 we offered this article to stimulate discussion about an important assumption of our democracy. As time has passed and terrorist outrage once more stalks our streets should we put more effort into defining and defending our freedom of speech? Freedom of speech is restricted by perceptions of abuse and hatred but have those restrictions gone too far? Are some groups taking unfair advantage of our tolerance? What do you think?

When we asked after the health of democracy in Wye we might have very well asked about the instruments that ensure its vitality. One of the principal insurances of democracy is the freedom of expression – of which freedom of speech is one aspect – and, like apple pie we all agree that it is good. However, and this is where the trouble begins, we all have reservations and surround our support with caveats. The main caveat is that we should not exhort others to kill and murder – that seems right and in a democratic society we leave decisions about death and killing to our democratic representatives. That seems tautological. If democracy has an insurance against tyranny in the freedom of expression how can we achieve democracy without full freedom of expression? That, even without an extreme example, is a problem. We walk on eggshells when it comes to race and religion and those issues are, as ever, major causes of conflict and a threat to security. The other no-go area is that of privacy of the individual, for which our laws against libel and scandal act as reasonable bulwarks. Reasonable, that is, until they become protections for unacceptable abuse of power and what kind of abuse can we cover up under the cloak of private life?

As Lord Justice Leveson issues his findings on the press and its regulation it will not only be the newspapers that will show concern over the future of the sixth estate – new citizen journalism is already a sufficient thorn in the side of the powerful that it’s censorship is only just around the corner. One only has to run a local website for a few months to experience the reactions to open debate.

BBC: Viewpoints: Should the press be regulated?