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Can speech ever be free?


“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending the best…They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people”

Donald Trump, presidential announcement speech, 16th June 2015

In what has been referred to as a ‘post-facts world’ it would appear that anything now goes. Yes, there are rules in England & Wales against incitement to racial hatred and a crime of Holocaust denial in Germany and some other European countries but the precious doctrine of “free speech” is now being used and abused like never before. It would appear that our ‘leaders’ now feel free to make baseless and incendiary statements and justify doing so by claiming “freedom of speech”.

The successful presidential campaign of Donald Trump and the “leave” campaign in the Brexit referendum hit new lows in the abuse of free speech. Often supported by populist right wing media, these campaigns continually peddled untruths and offered no factual basis for their assertions and dismissed expert opinion as irrelevant. During the Brexit campaign, key “leave” campaigner Michael Gove said, “people in this country have had enough about experts”.

As investigative journalism gradually disappears along with properly funded liberal print media, the elite will increasingly have the ability to make baseless claims without fear of being fact-checked or challenged – and as and when they are, they will abuse the doctrine of free speech to justify their initial comments. Having made his initial baseless comments about Mexican immigration into the United States, Trump was unrepentant: “I can never apologise for the truth” he said a month later. Back in the United Kingdom, Boris Johnson, another prominent “leave” protagonist was making untrue claims about the number of bananas the EU would allow in a bunch as a reason to vote against membership.

The leaders of neo-liberal democracies have used free speech for decades in order to maintain power but then used the criminal law to repress ideological opponents and suppress political protest. This process will undoubtedly continue. On this basis liberal values are not western but are values by the most powerful, these are values that are from people with financial advantage.

The powerful will maintain their privileged access to the doctrine of free speech; something that they will attempt to deny their opponents.

Many restrictions on freedom of speech are as much cultural as they are legal. Although libel laws, and now super-injunctions, control some aspects of speech, many perfectly legal points of view are considered socially unacceptable. The political and financial elite, via their control over mass media, maintain control over legal free speech by influencing the people to condemn those who threaten the status quo. To declare oneself an atheist in many parts of the world is legal but leads to social isolation. Even failing to say something can be regarded as unacceptable: a failure to sing the national anthem at the Battle of Britain service brought Jeremy Corbyn huge public condemnation; an American Footballer for the Denver Broncos lost a valuable endorsement for failing to stand for the US National Anthem as a protest against racial inequality.

What is interesting is how knowledge is received and processed.  The language used by the media can influence people adversely.  In particular the selection of information we chose to use and how it can influence people.  The media helps develop understandings, knowledge and opinion on subjects and helps us create a response.  The media plays a key role in setting up debate regimes and it can restrict the debate and airtime, decide what will be covered and set the media agenda for the day.   The receipt of information is subjective and will be influenced by the cultural background to our opinions, for example, age, gender, class, stereotyping, religion – debates can be directed in certain ways.

The problem with doctrine of free speech is the ‘unsaid’ things that exist in debate in both giving and receiving information and it is this that takes away the ‘free’ element of it.


By- Katherine Dyson

Image- Tumblr

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