What free speech really means in the UK

Munashe Chitenga


 

- In April 2018, a 19-year-old Chelsea Russell was found guilty of causing a public order offense after posting the lyrics from rapper Snap Dogg (no, not Snoop Dogg) on her Instagram, in tribute to the death of a 13-year-old boy. The prosecution came about after Dominique Walker, a black PC from the Merseyside hate-crime unit found the following lyrics, “slap a b**** n****, kill a snitch n****, rob a rich n****” to be offensive.


Russell did not create the lyrics nor even stand accused of bringing racial violence against others but was simply charged with a public order offense. This brought the unusual situation in which someone was fined hundreds of pounds and had to wear an ankle tag for eight weeks after a black police officer found a black artists’ song lyrics offensive.


This microcosm illuminates the greatest flaw within hate speech laws – there will always be someone who finds any particular speech offensive. And so, the burden is seemingly on the one who holds power; be it a judge, police constable or legislator to define what type of speech can be deemed to be so ‘hateful’ as to be effectively banned in the public domain.


Hate speech laws come under several different statutes in UK law. Perhaps most noteworthy is the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 which essentially deems a person guilty for using language seen as insulting and that causes alarm or distress to another person.


This arbitrary definition of hate speech can lead to a situation worse than it tries to solve. On the face of it, hate speech laws are a sensible and logical means to dealing with the multitude and egregious forms of hate conveyed in public discourse. However, the pivotal issue of context and nuance arises when allowing the subjective feeling of offence to be the indication of hate. It is inevitable that precious police time and resources are spent on cases where lyrics quoted online with no intention of malice (in this case quite the contrary) lead to a prosecution.


A more desirable solution would be to have a more liberal form of speech laws in which only utterances made which are libellous or an incitement to violence are restricted. This still allows for the vital and necessary protection of the individual from physical harm and defamation. The speech that would have previously been prosecutable under current hate speech laws would therefore be allowed to be freely expressed.


Admittedly, it would be utopian to suggest that everyone would get along cordially, and that speech would not be harmful. This is clearly not the case even now with the current limits on free speech in-place. Despite this, the benefits are that everyone would be able to understand what is said and could reject it in a social sense if deemed to be outside of the window of acceptable debate. This is important; limiting others’ access to someone else’s bigoted or hateful opinion may not do much in changing the opinion itself; but by allowing these opinions to flow freely we, as a society, can at least know what the bigoted opinion is and actively reject it.


This helps us as individuals to grow. It is easy to label someone as a racist or bigot and use the current legislation as a shield. But when faced with difficult ideas in an open arena, we are forced to make thoughtful choices about what we think is right rather than simply accepting what we are told is right by others. This helps us mature by facing adversarial speech head on with logic and intellect, whilst the truth of different ideas is tested.


As it is being ever-diluted in the UK, free speech is not simply the right to criticise the government, but it allows the freedom of enquiry and thus the freedom of thought. It is perhaps the most critical aspect of any secular; liberal democracy yet is being slowly overthrown by the preference of freedom from offense. This is especially as free speech is a non-partisan issue; it’s easy to defend ones right to free speech when you agree with what is being said. It is when you don’t agree with someone through the medium of their speech, tweet or video that free speech needs to be protected the most.


 

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