Defending free speech

I’ve taken up a position on the Scottish Advisory Council of the Free Speech Union (FSU). Others joining the Council include Jim Sillars, Peter Kearney, Joanna Cherry QC MP, Jenny Lindsay, Murdo Fraser MSP, Neil Thin, and Iain Macwhirter.

The FSU is a non-partisan, mass membership organisation that provides legal support to people whose speech rights have been curtailed. It also seeks to promote free speech and expression as societal goods. Here’s why I support these aims and believe the fight for free speech in Scotland is important.

An essential liberty

To me, freedom of speech is an essential liberty which we suppress at our peril. Generous free speech enables societal flourishing by allowing ideas to be shared and interrogated, inspiring positive change. It also acts as a guard against abuses of power. As the leading African American abolitionist Frederick Douglass said: “The right of speech is a very precious one, especially to the oppressed”. When injustice has a voice it can be heard, and answered.

I’m concerned that free speech is in poor health in Scotland today, as it is in many Western nations. We can see this in our legislation. I led a campaign called Free to Disagree which opposed the Scottish Government’s highly controversial Hate Crime and Public Order Bill. This represented an odious attack on free speech and expression that flew in the face of our proud, liberal speech tradition.

Through this bill, the Scottish Government sought to introduce new and sweeping offences targeting speech, writing, and online communications considered “likely” to stir up “hatred” on the basis of age, disability, religion, sexual orientation, and transgender identity. These vague, ill-defined offences threatened to narrow the parameters of acceptable speech considerably, and stifle criticism and debate.

A huge backlash against the bill prompted some serious amendments, but the legislation as it stands today – the Hate Crime Act – still poses a threat. Free speech provisions are weak and inconsistent on different characteristics. Explanatory notes fail to shed light on what will and will not be caught by the new offences. And the law is clearly causing a huge headache behind the scenes. Implementation has been delayed several times, and police figures have heavily criticised it.

When the Hate Crime Act does come into force, ideologues may try to weaponize the ‘stirring up’ offences to shut down opponents. Vexatious and malicious reports will have to be investigated even if they do not go to court, causing immense stress to citizens falsely accused of hate. And people across society will self-censor for fear of committing an offence, causing an impoverishment of public conversation on various issues.

An embattled liberty

Laws like the Hate Crime Act are not the only threat, or even the worst threat, to free speech in Scotland. The 19th Century philosopher John Stuart Mill talked of society’s tendency to impose conformity “by other means than civil penalties”. And George Orwell stressed that “unpopular ideas can be silenced…without the need for any official ban”. Culture itself can undermine free speech if it is intolerant towards it.

Sadly, the air we are breathing in Scotland just now is stifling towards free speech for many reasons, too varied and complex to go into here. Our institutions are increasingly politicised. Unorthodox or politically incorrect views are no longer tolerated. Some educational establishments no longer defend free and open inquiry. And we have a police force that obsesses over Soviet sounding “hate incidents”.

Public figures like Joanna Cherry QC, a fellow advisor to the FSU, will attest to the many women in Scottish society who face abuse and silencing for expressing gender critical views. As a Christian, I can attest to the stifling of orthodox Christian views on things like marriage and the sanctity of life. On college and university campuses, in workplaces, and in the high street. Evangelical Christians are the worst affected.

We no longer live in a public square where the right to articulate heterodox viewpoints is guaranteed. And that is deeply worrying. Free speech must include the right to be unorthodox, controversial, and offensive. As former High Court judge Lord Justice Sedley famously said: “Free speech includes not only the inoffensive but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative … Freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.”

Fighting for change

I think the arrival of Free Speech Union Scotland is welcome, joining other groups working to uphold civil liberties. The FSU will provide a much needed line of defence to Scots oppressed under bad laws and policies, and through our wider, censorious culture. And it will also provide, I hope, a positive articulation of free speech, demonstrating how it benefits society as a whole. Generous free speech, tempered by civility and mutual respect, is a powerful force for good.

The writer George Orwell once said: “If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it.” As free speech proponents, it’s our collective responsibility to promote a culture of free speech in Scotland. To be evangelists for it. And when culture catches on, illiberal and autocratic forces will be challenged.

To be a vibrant and healthy nation, we need to be free to disagree. And we need to be able to disagree well. I believe this is more than possible, and I hope many will join the fight for change in Scotland in years to come.

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