The frightening chill on free speech

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It’s a sad but undeniable aspect of the Internet age that the debate is too often dominated by the loudest, ugliest voices. Reputations and platforms are built on anger. Strong opinions and emotions are rewarded with attention and followers.

It is in this toxic context that an increasingly poisonous debate about free speech is being fought. Behavior that was bearable when limited to a few individuals and a newsletter is far more concerning on social media channels seen by hundreds of thousands. But in the struggle between good intentions and bad actors, society runs the risk of losing sight of what it most needs to protect.

Minority groups feel growing hostility. Muslims, Jews and trans people in particular face increasing levels of abuse. They rightly ask why those who hold such views should not be reported or face consequences.

However, threats to debate and free speech cannot be ignored. We’ve seen a prominent politician lose his bank account, at least in part, because staff didn’t like his views, a professor with controversial views on trans rights removed from her university, and, most chilling of all, a teacher forced to hide from threats from Islamic extremists who decided one of her lectures was blasphemous. Crowds gathered outside schools or parliamentarians’ homes. Specious arguments about personal safety are used to silence “wrong thoughts.”

A new government review describes a climate of self-censorship built by “freedom-restricting harassment” that goes beyond the justified aim of protecting minorities from real threats. At the heart of Sara Khan’s report is the fundamental point that failure to protect free speech corrodes social cohesion and that political and civic institutions are failing to address this challenge.

Coincidentally, his report came just days before Scotland is due to introduce a new hate crime law, which critics say will have exactly the impact Khan describes. The provision extends the nebulous crime of “incitement to hatred” to protected minorities not covered by current legislation. The ruling Scottish National Party says the bar on prosecution will be high, but the chilling impact of a police call will be felt and even unprosecuted incidents will remain on police records. Feminist opponents of the trans rights agenda fear the new law will be used to stifle debate and were alarmed by reports of a police training exercise which appeared to be based on the writer and sexual rights campaigner JK Rowling.

Khan argues persuasively that allowing harassment to silence political disagreement undermines democracy. This creates rifts in society that extremists will use to stoke anger and build a divisive narrative of people losing their country to liberals or immigrants. In contrast, the case of teacher Batley demonstrates that intimidation is being used to foment religious unrest and introduce clandestine blasphemy laws.

Some of those now weaponizing the free speech debate are also behind efforts to undermine trust in major institutions. Far-right groups have used distrust in the media and disinformation to foment racial hatred in communities with false stories.

A survey related to Khan’s report shows that 76% of people say they have limited their opinions in public for fear of harassment. He sees a social danger in anyone who feels silenced by the fear of losing their job or facing online harassment, death threats, doxxing or simply relentless abuse.

Not all of his advice will be supported. But its central point must be digested and put into practice. Social cohesion will not be found in a set of prohibited behaviors that prompt police to target otherwise law-abiding citizens, but in a set of commonly shared rules and values ​​that apply to everyone. One of these is the fundamental belief in free speech with restrictions only on dangerous or malicious behavior. Wrong opinions cannot be eliminated by law. They must be defeated in discussion.

And while governments, guidelines and laws can all play a role, the only solution – unfortunately the most difficult to secure – is a relentless, unified defense of this fundamental democratic principle.

This means that political and civic leaders stand in support of harassed people and defend a social norm. It requires careful use of hate crime laws. This also means that universities and, particularly importantly, businesses show fortitude in defending their staff from unwarranted attacks and in ensuring that the important and well-intentioned inclusiveness agenda is not misused so as to exchange one injustice to another. A liberal desire not to offend should not turn into a right not to be offended, nor should expansive definitions of “safe spaces” be used to stifle debate.

This also requires consistency. A government that champions free speech should not seek to cancel the Gaza protests or denounce them as “hate marches” in pursuit of a broader culture war.

Sometimes defending free speech can be uncomfortable. But the alternative to addressing this harassment is for moderate debate to be excluded – as is already happening online – and the field to be ceded to those who thrive on division. Harassment must be shown to fail. Otherwise the danger is that the cause of free speech ends up mobilizing that part of the country that reacts when it is told that it is no longer allowed to say what it thinks.

We have experienced this degree of polarization in recent years. Does anyone think this works well?

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