In 1791, Congress ratified 10 amendments to the US Constitution. These amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, define the foundations of a free society. In the long history of the slow development of human rights, from the Magna Carta in 1215, through to the legislation of current times, this is unquestionably one of the most influential.
The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.”
One-and-a-half centuries later, in 1950, the Council of Europe issued the European Convention on Human Rights, or ECHR. Article 10 of that document reads, “Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority.” Important in this wording, I believe, is the guarantee of freedom not only to hold ideas, but to “impart information and ideas without interference.” Although the press is not specifically mentioned in that wording, it is fully covered.
So — in two great continents of the Western world, free speech is guaranteed. Right?
It’s not that simple.
Of course, freedom of speech is not an absolute. Slander, lying under oath, telling military secrets to the enemy, and so on — all have been illegal for a very long time. My concern, however, is that over the past 20 years in Britain, and more widely in the Western world, we have seen a subtle increase in the restrictions on free speech and on our necessary freedom to debate difficult and divisive issues.
In any democratic society there are two key components of freedom in speech and ideas which should be sacrosanct. One is press freedom — always the first victim of totalitarian and fascist regimes. The other is academic freedom — also an early casualty throughout history when dictators rule.
Why are these two so vital to democracy and a free society?
Press freedom, specifically guaranteed in the Bill of Rights (though not specifically in the ECHR) allows the public full access to information without government control. We rightly deplore the tight controls over information exercised in the past in totalitarian states, most egregiously perhaps in Nazi Germany, Communist China, and the Soviet Union. Millions of citizens in these regimes were denied access to information or views other than those sanctioned and approved by the state. Many such regimes, sadly, can still be found today. In them, people cannot make independent judgements about values or events, nor recognize that there are alternatives to the life they lead.
In Britain, the past few years have seen worrying attacks on press freedom. For example, following the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and the subsequent inquiry, Lord Leveson, the head of Britain’s ciminial justice system, proposed a regulator, IMPRESS, which was ultimately answerable to government. Despite honorable efforts to put in controls that would guarantee that IMPRESS would be always at arm’s length from government, many saw this as a dangerous tool that a future government might be able to exploit to censure ideas with which it disagreed. It is difficult not to be pleased that no major newspaper has joined IMPRESS, preferring instead to join a press-controlled self-regulator, IPSO (the Independent Press Standards Organization).
Nor is this the only example of a dangerous constraint on press freedom. The new phenomenon of public opinion as expressed (usually anonymously) on social media has developed into a fearfully powerful tool, and not necessarily for good. A chilling example of this was when the stationery company Paperchase not only apologized on Twitter for advertising in the right-wing Daily Mail but added “we know now [because of what had been said on Twitter] that we were wrong to do this . . . and we won’t ever do it again.” If advertising revenue is cut because a newspaper offers views with which “the people” — as represented on social media — disagree, then a worrying new control over press freedom is emerging.
Academic freedom is equally vital for a free society. It is in universities that ideas are questioned, debated, opposed and defended, and where each new generation of young people learns to defend or change the assumptions that they bring. Academic research may question old ideas by bringing new evidence to the debate, as it has done for many centuries. Past scholars have hugely advanced human knowledge by their findings, which were deeply offensive to many of their contemporaries, such as showing that the earth goes around the sun or that the natural world is shaped by evolutionary process. Few people would question the importance of advancing human knowledge, yet over time many scholars and thinkers have either been burned at the stake for their ideas or, in more constrained modern times, been fired from their post.
In 1915, the economist Edwin Seligman and the philosopher Arthur Lovejoy drafted their “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” which has become a benchmark for academic freedom throughout the Western world. The two men were motivated by their outrage at the firing of economist Edward Ross from Stanford University, for no better reason than that his views were unacceptable to the university’s wealthy proprietor, Mrs. Stanford.
The declaration is a vitally important and authoritative statement, defining the purpose of a university as “to promote inquiry and to advance the sum of human knowledge.” Human knowledge can only be advanced if those who teach are not constrained by government interference, and inquiry can only be promoted if students are not free to opt out of any teaching or views with which they disagree. Sadly, though, the British government is using its financial powers to move ever closer into the regulation of universities. The new Office for Students has dangerously strong regulatory powers to punish universities whose teaching fails to conform to arbitrarily imposed standards.
A further insidious form of control is also now found on the free debate of ideas with students. At some misguided moment, politicians decided that students should be allowed “safe spaces.” These are defined as places where “debate takes place within specific guidelines in order to ensure that people do not feel threatened because of their gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity.” It is worrying to find that, in a recent survey by Britain’s Higher Education Policy Institute, almost half of all students surveyed support the safe-space policy. These young people mistakenly — and sadly — believe that a university should protect them from hearing or reading any ideas with which they disagree or find upsetting.
These findings raise issues for wider society. The popular view of a person’s right not to be offended has serious consequences for free speech. A civilized and adult view of the world should surely include resilience against offense. Despite this, many people now seem to feel that any views which offend any section of society should be suppressed.
There will always be views, publications, and performances that we find personally or socially offensive. There will always be people whose views differ from ours, and debate which we find uncomfortable. Schools and universities should be committed to helping young people deal with this; to listen to and debate opposing views, and if necessary, deal robustly with verbal abuse. Surely this is a better way of protecting young people than trying to spare them from exposure to ideas different from their own.
Education, I passionately believe, leads to an opening of minds, not their closure. Through a respect for inquiry, for evidence, for the logic of opinions, we can fight prejudice and extreme views. As the great philosopher Peter Abelard said in his famous “Sic et Non” exposition, “By doubting we come to inquiry, by inquiry we come to truth.” How perfect a way to describe what education is about!
One question remains, and it is an important one. How does free speech — in government, in education, and above all in social media — deal with lies? In an era where “Fake News” is a norm on social media, how should we respond? Surely we must educate the generation who live on such sites to distinguish between truth and lies. This they can learn to do only by listening to two versions of a single event or both sides of a story and making a judgment as to which has the force of both truth and logic. And this is the heart of my concern about current policy. If we allow young people to see and hear only one side of every issue — the one with which they agree — how will they ever learn to distinguish truth from falsehood? How will democracy survive if lies can be as powerful as truth?
Pauline Perry has been a member of the British House of Lords since 1991.