If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for those we despise, we don’t believe in it at all

t is no hardship to support the speech of those whom we agree with. For our democracy to thrive, we need to welcome the "fruitcakes and closet racists", the jihadists and holocaust deniers to the debate.

Tom Morrison-Bell is a London-based writer and commentator

The most basic, but probably most overlooked, truism of freedom of expression is that, in the words of Noam Chomsky, “if we don’t believe in freedom of expression for those we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”.

If it is true, as The Guardian has reported, that the Conservatives and Labour have decided that UKIP must be kept out of the 2015 election TV debates, then this should be of concern to anyone who claims to believe in freedom of expression.

One justification provided seems to be that the main parties are concerned that they might suffer politically should UKIP be given access to the same airtime as the main parties. Since when should freedom of expression be abrogated to political whims?

Another justification reported in The Guardian, expressed by the prime minister, is that the TV debates should only be contested between parties that could form a government. Presumably if UKIP won enough seats, they would be able to participate in the formation of a government, and presumably being able to participate in the election debates would increase the likelihood of their being in this position.

It doesn’t take much brainpower to see the glaring tension between Cameron’s view that the televised debates should only be between serious contenders for power and the decision to attempt to sideline UKIP from the TV debates on the grounds that they may actually gain significant political support.

This is not to support UKIP or justify some of the distasteful policies which they eschew. Rather, it is precisely because of their distasteful views that they should be given access to the same political platforms as the major parties. To attempt to deny them access because one does not like what they say is to run precisely against this truism of freedom of expression.

Yet there is also a deeper issue going on, one which grows out of the relationship between free speech and flourishing democracy. Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy. As the great American Supreme Court judge, Justice Brandeis, put it, “in… government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary…without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile;…the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; [and]…public discussion is a political duty”.

Restricting political debate to that which is pleasing to the main parties stifles the deliberative element crucial for a healthy democracy. It serves to create an ‘inert people’. Despite obvious reservations about UKIP’s proposed policies, they should be credited with stimulating political debate and we should welcome this.

UKIP (and the other minority parties) should be allowed, at the very minimum, equality of access to political platforms. Perhaps, with the French, we should require equality of airtime for all parties in the TV debates.

It is no hardship to support the speech of those whom we agree with. For our democracy to thrive, however, we need to welcome the ‘fruitcakes and closet racists’, the jihadists and holocaust deniers to the debate. We can only overcome them by engaging them in sincere and rational deliberation, hoping that the greater power of reason will gradually shift their views over time. To continue with exclusion is to treat democracy with contempt.

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7 Responses to “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for those we despise, we don’t believe in it at all”

  1. oli

    Maybe Cameron is thinking that giving the Lib Dems equal billing in the 2010 debates gave them and Clegg more coverage than they deserved, and shifted a few votes from away from the Tories. once bitten twice shy and all that

  2. Steve

    Freedom of expression and freedom to be invited to a TV debate are surely two separate issues. No-one is stopping UKIP from having their say and taking part in any election.

    In 2010, there were more than 50 parties who contested seats, along with many more independents. Will each have access to a PEB, to the TV debate platform etc?

    Or should the main opportunities be reserved for those parties that have the ability to form a Government (in terms of candidates standing)?

  3. Steve

    Freedom of expression and freedom to be invited to a TV debate are surely two separate issues. No-one is stopping UKIP from having their say and taking part in any election.

    In 2010, there were more than 50 parties who contested seats, along with many more independents. Will each have access to a PEB, to the TV debate platform etc?

    Or should the main opportunities be reserved for those parties that have the ability to form a Government (in terms of candidates standing)?

  4. Philip Conway

    UKIP has no MPs! What gives them the right to participate in TV debates over and above other small parties who do have seats?

  5. Gareth Millward

    Give them a platform. They’ll show how intellectually bankrupt they are. And if they don’t, that’s the failing of the other main parties, not the gullibility of the public.

  6. Crankcase08

    In which case I suggest Britain does it Russian style. In Russia, all contending parties are permitted, by law, equal air time in debates.

    Amusing that Russia is now an example for the rest of the world to follow in many things.

  7. Crankcase08

    They do it in Russia, where all contesting parties have equal right to television time. It just goes to show how Russia has left Britain behind when it comes to democracy.

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