Free speech and how dare you

How do you feel about free speech? Ask the wrong person that question and you might get a punch in the face. But by and large we would say Yes, of course, free speech is a fundamental right for everyone. Even Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have a right to free speech.

But free speech has limits.  The classic instance is the non-right to yell “Fire!” in a crowded auditorium.  You’re also not entitled to free speech that clashes with values we cherish.  For example, you’re not free to spout about how people with a dark skin are fundamentally inferior, or that women should never have been let out of  the kitchen, or that Catholics/nationalists should have been kept as second-class citizens. Free speech can’t be used to cut across the human rights and dignity of other people.

The question, how far does this go? I remember decades ago being at an Ian Paisley rally in Canada. A guy in the audience  stood up and began to rebut some of the rubbish the Big Man was voicing. Several large men quickly escorted him off the premises, with Paisley assuring the rest of us that if the guy wanted to air his views, let him hire his own hall to do it.  And everyone clapped.  So free speech, but not in my backyard.

The same sort of thing happens today at Trump rallies. If some brave soul shouts a contradiction at the US president, the heavies remove him/her. At big soccer games, home supporters are segregated from the away supporters, because your right to cheer encouragement to your team  could, if opposing supporters sit near you, result in you getting a kicking. Preictably, it’s different with Gaelic games. There the punch-ups are more likely on-field.

Where the suppression of speech becomes truly worrying is when people are denounced for speaking truths that are factual. I remember an occasion when a toddler relative of mine stared at me and, to her parents’ mortification,  said loudly “You’ve got no hair!”  This was factually accurate, but adults pull back from speaking truths that might be hurtful.  For example, we don’t as a rule exercise free speech by commenting on another person’s looks. “Does my bum look big in this?” must always receive an instant “No!” even if it’s a lie. Research indicates that men who do not comment on a woman’s weight live longer than men who do.

I once mentioned –diplomatically and  sympathetically, I thought –  a female politician’s appearance. Immediately people who would have identified themselves as tolerant took to the twittersphere to call on hell to open its gates for me. Had there been a supply of piano wire and a convenient lamp-post,  my right to free speech would have ended with the former round my neck and the rest of me suspended from the latter.

In recent days there are stories of speakers with certain political views being banned from speaking at universities. Which seems to me an unsatisfactory state of affairs, since learning about views that don’t match with your own is supposed  to be one of the great benefits of going to university.

Political free speech in this twisted toxic corner is  full of booby traps. You may state a fact but be ready for a torrent of abuse if it doesn’t fit into the accepted narrative.  Another close-to-home example:  for years I was invited to participate in political discussion on BBC Raidio Uladh/Radio Ulster. That all came to a juddering halt when I wrote a blog which included a little-mentioned fact about a Troubles victim. No one disputed the truth of what I’d said but the door of Broadcasting House was instantly barred against me.  All speech is free but some speech is freer than others.

To finish this serious topic with a smile.  Nelson McCausland is on record as saying that he considers me “the most sectarian journalist I have ever come across.” Which is a pretty good description, except that I’ve never been a journalist  – a columnist, yes – and I would happily give Nelson £100 if he could point to a single statement I’ve made or sentence I’ve written which is sectarian.

Sad to say, in our society free speech is acceptable, even prized, providing it chimes with majority opinion.  George Orwell used to call it “groupthink”  and there’s a helluva lot of it going around.

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