Debate: The complexities of freedom of speech

Carl Packman explores the complex nature of freedom of speech. Where should the line be drawn? should there even be a line?


In the first of a two-part series on freedom of speech, Carl Packman looks at the rights of those whose views and actions progressives find distasteful, focusing on the case of the anti-BPAS protesters

Progressives have never been ambigious regarding their attitude on protest. And those familiar truisms stand: the right to freedom of expression and the right to protest are crucial in a democracy and speak to one of a number of recognised human rights.

Every so often, however, an instance comes along to test those progressive principles, namely in the form of how Evelyn Beatrice Hall explained Voltaire’s beliefs:

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

In the US it is the Phelps family who picket the funerals of passed service men and women with banners reading “Fag Soldier in Hell” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”.

Their protest sparked outrage and raised the question of what fair protest was. In other words is it ever acceptable to bring your right to free speech among grieivng families. The freedom to speech and of expression is the sine qua non of a healthy society, to be sure, but can we foresee a limit to these freedoms without putting them into jeopardy?

In the UK we might think about the right of the English Defence League to march. We don’t support their message, but we cannot suppress their right to say it lest we renege on those principles that not only we hold dear, but allow us a voice, contrary to the political status quo.

The only caveat here is that often the English Defence League bring with them the baggage of hate speech and violence. Is it therefore a duty to place a ban on their marches on the grounds there is a contingent within their organisation that cannot be controlled and who purposefully go out to seek trouble?

On the flipside, Islam4UK and Muslims Against Crusades, two overlapping extremist organisations, mark army parades by holding demonstrations waving placards reading “Anglian Soldiers: Butchers of Basra” and “Anglian Soldiers: cowards, killers, extremists”.

Again, for most this should raise some deeply agonising questions. Hate speech is covered by the law and not tolerated, but without recourse to the law we should ask ourselves a very philosophical question: are there ever any moral grounds on which to curtail free speech, even if that speech is likely to offend people who are vulnerable, distressed and not in a position to extend a counter-argument for whatever reason?

Such questions were raised once again in recent times with anti-abortion protesters who took their message outside abortion clinics. Some protests offer silent prayer and “advice” to women seeking counselling on abortion or are due to terminate their pregnancies, while others have used less than civil tactics.

There have been eyewitness accounts of intimidation and filming, complaints to the police about the distress caused by the protestors, as well as banners showing the images of dead foetuses.

Earlier this week, Andrew Stephenson and Kathryn Sloane, members of pro-life pressure group Abort67 – who stood accused of intimidating women seeking services from a British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) clinic in Brighton – were cleared of those charges. While some pro-choice voices exemplified this case as another failure in the law, pro-life voices, namely Andrea Minichiello Williams, chief executive of the Christian Legal Centre, which represented the accused, pointed out this was important for all those who “value freedom of speech and expression”.

Obviously this doesn’t bode well with all who sought a guilty verdict during the trial. Freedom of speech is sacred, but some would argue that by using it to justify picketing women who are simply seeking medical advice, or are about to undergo a medical procedure – which they are legally entitled to do – is not fair game and even sullies the otherwise good word of freedom.

This isn’t case closed, though; the question now is should we ban such actions?

Here we must ask ourselves this: is it the case that when we want something changed we only seek to change the law, or do we live in a world of people solving problems and highlighting differences in the free exchange of dialogue? As Demos’s Max Wind-Cowie, at a recent debate hosted by BPAS on this subject, raised, do we want to live in a world where the moral and the legal are inseperable? After all it is not necessarily so that the legal is ethical and the illegal ethical, as we know with reference to those in history who have fought for their civil rights.

That we shouldn’t find this world appealing says two things:

1). That freedom of speech is so important; and

2). That we accept people are intelligent enough, by and large, to make informed choices and decisions by themselves.

Part of the problem, when we bring this debate back to the right to protest outside abortion clinics, is that clearly some pro-life activists either don’t believe this second thing to be true, or have fallen for the myth abortion clinics in the UK only encourage women seeking advice to have an abortion. But that raises questions about protest motives, it doesn’t raise questions about our first principles in a democracy.

Those of us who hold freedom of speech and expression dear should be consistent with our views, and aim to see that right extended to even our enemies. But there are limits. It is crass and objectionable to wave shocking banners in front of people without real knowledge of who they are and what they seek to find out from an abortion clinic. But this ought not be conflated with censorship.

If we take freedom of speech and expression seriously we should recognise its limits in a civil society. Though I think the protesters outside BPAS clinics are wrong, and their reasons to be there (for some it is to question the impartiality of the counselling services at abortion clinics) based on an error, I am bound by principle to defend their right to do so – though I think this is tough for the left.

Where our fellow progressives are involved, the right to strike and the right to protest sit very well with us all. But something jars us with those we find politically unpalatable. Understandably. Though we can’t let this feeling get in the way of our principles, nor should we let it disturb the ways in which we seek to challenge unpalatable politics.

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