Wednesday, October 07, 2015

On Freedom of Thought

Last week Nick Cohen took a lecture he had given at the No Boundaries conference at the Bristol Watershed Theatre on how censorship affects the arts, museums and libraries, and posted a version of it at the Spectator:

I described it as one of the best articles in favour of freedom of expression I have ever read.

This week he has done a piece on his own blog on how The PC revolution devours its' own which also appeared in shorter form in Standpoint. The second article presents the case for freedom of political thought in the same way the first did for artistic thought.

For two centuries people in the West have enjoyed free speech. But it seems that the fight to keep it needs to be waged again in each generation.

Let's not get into the argument about who first said that "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."

The point is that it's true and we need that vigilance now as much as every. Including against our own worst instincts, because all of us need to resist the temptation to ban ideas we don't agree with.

This week I had to repeatedly run the gauntlet on my way into and out of Conservative conference of anti-tory protesters, some of whom were saying or shouting extremely offensive things, and not just at Conservative delegates but at journalists and anyone else entering the conference.

Including, for example, a wheelchair user who is not a Conservative but was there to chair a discussion on disability organised by a charity, and who was vilified both by other wheelchair users and able-bodied protestors for trying to persuade the government to modify its' policies inside the hall instead of being outside shouting abuse.

I had to repeatedly remind myself that the protestors have as much right to their opinions as I have to mine and, no matter how stupid I find their behaviour, they should be entitled to express their views as long as they stop short of obstruction, intimidation, or violence (which most, though by no means all, of them did.)

In fact, and this is a huge irony, until last year the actions of many protesters at this year's Conservative party conference might well have rendered them liable to prosecution under Section 5 of the Public Order act under which "Insulting words and behaviour" could be criminalised - a law which I and many other people campaigned successfully to repeal. The campaign was called "Feel Free to Insult Me" and I am still proud to have backed it. If some demonstrators took me up on the invitation this week, well so be it.

Please take the time to read Nick Cohen's article here: it is important that we understand how much the principle of freedom of speech is under threat.

Here is a quote from the article which makes the point:

"When I argue for freedom of speech at student unions, I am greeted with incomprehension as much as outrage. It’s not only that they don’t believe in it, they don’t understand how anyone could believe in it unless they were a racist or rapist. The politicians, bureaucrats, chief police officers and corporate leaders of tomorrow are at universities which teach that open debate and persuasion by argument are ideas so dangerous they must be banned as a threat to health and safety. Unless we challenge them in the most robust manner imaginable, whatever kind of country they grow up to preside over is unlikely to be a very free one."

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