Is Freedom of Speech Under Attack?

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If one was to go round asking people if they believed in the idea of freedom of speech and thought, the response would most likely be a resounding yes. Nowadays, however, it seems as if the basic right of freedom of speech is under attack in the liberal west. The reasons for this change in attitude away from the traditional liberalist view on speech is down to many reasons, from protecting a minority of people from being offended to keeping society safe from hate speech. These views are dangerous and they open up the possibility to a return to authoritarian control over people’s views, and for the good of society, it must be stopped.

When, in March, the former Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, was told only hours before her address to the Oxford Union that her invitation as a guest speaker had been rescinded, due to her involvement in the disastrous Windrush scandal, many were rightly appalled. The right to speak freely is a founding principle of Universities, where debate and the sharing of diverse opinions is encouraged. In this case, that principle had been broken. Rudd’s right to speak and share her experiences as a former government minister were ignored, simply for the sake of protecting a few people who would feel “offended” over her presence. The Windrush scandal was undoubtedly one of the worst government policy failures in the last few decades, and every decent person was outraged, however, it still isn’t an excuse to censor her and stop her from speaking to students at Oxford University. This example, unfortunately, is not rare, but rather is a growing occurrence amongst Universities, and in wider society, where censorship and “de-platforming” are now increasingly common, especially online.

Looking abroad, the issue has been incredibly prevalent amongst liberal and left-wing student unions in the United States, with some of the finest and most respected Universities being culprits in this behaviour. ‘Safe spaces’, where people are shielded from ideas they find uncomfortable, are regular features of Universities today, and protests over right-wing and sometimes controversial speakers are increasingly violent. The issue became so prevalent, that congress held a hearing in May 2018 on the matter of free speech on campus, with numerous attendees being victims of the cancel culture that was growing on campuses. One such attendee, was the right-wing commentator, Ben Shapiro. Shapiro is somewhat of an internet superstar, with his show, “The Daily Wire”, being one of the most popular conservative podcasts in the US. However, despite his growing stardom, his views are far from savoury. He has on numerous occasions spewed Islamophobic, homophobic, and transphobic language. These views, which include him claiming that Arabs “live in sewers and bomb s***” and that Transgender people are mentally ill, have complimented with his fame as a conservative speaker, to make him a target of far-left groups and student unions at Universities. This resulted in a violent showdown at UC Berkeley in September 2018, where protests over his appearance as a speaker, caused the police to shell out $600,000 and make 9 arrests. Some have claimed it was the University’s fault for inviting such a controversial and extreme guest to speak, however, the blame should lie with the students that chose to protest him speaking. I in no way support Shapiro or his views, but that does not allow me to censor or protest his right to speech, the same way that he doesn’t have the right to censor mine either. Young students at these universities must realise that the world isn’t a one-way thought system, where their beliefs are correct, and that everyone else that disagrees with those views are inherently wrong.

On the other hand, those that argue de-platforming and censoring speakers at Universities or in general life should be encouraged, would argue that given the extreme language and rhetoric someone such as Shapiro uses, it creates a toxic atmosphere, where individuals are encouraged to act violently from the words of extreme speakers. This is where freedom of speech can be disputed as to whether it actually does protect people’s rights. Hate speech has long been debated as to whether it exists or not, and some claim that freedom of speech does not protect hate speech. Well, firstly, hate speech does exist.  If a person chooses to call someone a slur or band a segment of society as problematic, then that is hate speech. No stronger example would be Nazi Germany, where the accusations of blaming Jews for Germany’s economic problems ultimately lead to the horrors of the holocaust. To ignore hate speech and claim it doesn’t exist is not only false and wrong, but it is also dangerous. However, speech, even when it is hateful, still cannot be censored. That is because, if we as a society were to set a line and say no one can cross it, then where is the line put and who puts it there? If the government were to set it, then there is a danger the views of the majority get to silence the views of the minority, and that is when a nation slips into authoritarianism and oppressiveness. The tough reality is that hate speech does exist, and unfortunately, in this imperfect world, it is protected by freedom of speech. Everyone must learn to live with that uncomfortable truth, and hope that the good in humanity remains more prevalent amongst us in society than the evil.

In the end, Freedom of speech is undoubtedly supported and encouraged by almost all that enjoy it, but the traditional liberal definition of free speech is now being redefined by many to counteract hate speech. While this seems harmless at first sight, and its intentions may be of genuine worry for the consequences of hate speech, this move to increased censorship will lead us down a dark path towards authoritarianism, where beliefs of the minority overrule those of the majority. It is vitally important, in my view, that this movement to higher censorship is ended, to prevent us moving down that dystopian path.