Freedom of speech is a key part of democracy

Anyone should be allowed to say what they like, so long as it is not so contrary to public order or so morally reprehensible that it would warrant censorship, says Sharon Brooks.
Freedom of speech is a key part of democracy

Recently, more than 1,300 evidently well-intentioned people wrote to RTÉ opposing Katie Hopkins’s appearance on The Late Late Show. While their conviction is to be admired, I personally am glad they were not successful in their endeavour.

We live in a society where people are entitled to express their opinion. I may express dissenting opinion, and you are free to agree or disagree, or indeed to write your own letter in rebuttal. You are free to do so, and I welcome it.

For the avoidance of doubt, I do not support Hopkins. Her stance on Trump, Brexit, immigration, women, minorities, and human rights generally causes great concern. The brashness of her opinions, without any care for nuance in order to garner attention, particularly grates, but in the words of Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall, while I may not agree with what you say ‘I will defend to the death your right to say it’. Of course, this is conditional. What I really mean is this: I may not agree with you, but I will defend your right to say whatever you like, so long as it is not so contrary to public order, or so morally reprehensible that it would warrant censorship. Even then, however, the threshold will be high, and it must be high.

The freedom of speech is the cornerstone of any functioning democracy. I do not think its importance can be overstated. It is so fundamental it is recognised in international and regional law, as well as forming part of constitutions and legislation at a domestic level. The right is enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, and Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights. Indeed, the right is enshrined in our own constitution — Article 40.6.1 — and only limited insofar as it is in accordance with public order or morality.

Since 1992, 1,210 journalists around the world have been killed as a result of their work. As of last year, 199 journalists were in jail. Since 2008, 456 journalists have been exiled, and this year, alone, 31 journalists have been killed in the course of their work. If journalists are the gatekeepers of this right, which they are, I don’t think it is hyperbole to say that the freedom of speech, and consequently democracy, is under threat.

I assume the reasons for objecting to Hopkins’s appearance on The Late Late Show were twofold: Firstly, they don’t agree with Hopkins’s ideologies and, secondly, they didn’t want to give a platform to someone who they perceive to be so morally bankrupt. The fact that Hopkins states she is a “proud Brexiteer”; the fact that she would have voted for Donald Trump; the fact that she says immigration should be tightly regulated; the fact that she says she would rather be “grabbed by the pussy than have a pussy for president”, and the fact she says she doesn’t identify with the female sex does not amount to speech which would warrant censorship. In fact, it doesn’t even come close. Even if she said “I support the KKK”, that would still not be enough. Most importantly, nothing she said on The Late Late Show is contrary to public order or morality, at least not to the level requiring censorship.

Freedom of speech is essential to enhance knowledge, so that one can engage fully in a democratic society. Its main justification is to unveil truth, but it also promotes personal growth, tolerance, and understanding, as well as very simply affording people the right to communicate with each other. Curtailing this right must be done in only the most extreme circumstances.

To quote Noam Chomsky: “Goebbels was in favour of free speech for views he liked. So was Stalin. If you’re really in favour of free speech, then you’re in favour of freedom of speech for precisely the views you despise. Otherwise, you’re not in favour of free speech.”

Last Saturday, Trump chastised the cast of the musical Hamilton after they delivered a message to the incoming US vice-president Mike Pence from the stage in New York, while he was there to watch their performance. The message was simple: In your role as vice-president, please represent all of America.

“We, sir, we are the diverse America who are alarmed and anxious that your new administration will not protect us, our planet, our children, our parents, or defend us and uphold our inalienable rights, sir,” they said.

“But we truly hope this show has inspired you to uphold our American values and work on behalf of all of us. All of us. Again, we truly thank you for seeing this show, this wonderful American story told by a diverse group of men and women of different colours, creeds, and orientations.”

The president-elect responded via Twitter calling out the cast in the following manner: “Our wonderful future V.P. Mike Pence was harassed last night at the theater by the cast of Hamilton, cameras blazing. This should not happen!”

Not fully satisfied, he then tweeted: “The Theater must always be a safe and special place. The cast of Hamilton was very rude last night to a very good man, Mike Pence. Apologize!” And again: “The cast and producers of Hamilton, which I hear is highly overrated, should immediately apologize to Mike Pence for their terrible behavior.”

Should they apologise? Absolutely not! Whether you agree or you disagree with them, they are entitled to express themselves in any way they wish. Even if it was inappropriate, mistimed or misguided, or rude, they are entitled to say it. It is their right, and it is even more important, it is even more warranted, considering they were addressing the incoming US vice-president.

Trump will be president. The UK will leave the EU. Hopkins has some 665,000 followers on Twitter. The world is changing. Shutting out those you don’t agree with is not the answer. I’m not defending Hopkins. What I am defending, however, is the freedom of speech and I will continue to defend it.

Those who voted against Trump, those who voted against Brexit, those who dislike Hopkins, and those who believe human rights should always be the primary concern are swiftly becoming the minority. More than ever, we need to hold steadfastly onto what makes us a democratic society. More than ever, we need our voices to be heard. More than ever, we need the freedom of speech. In the words of Justice Louis D Brandeis: “If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the process of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”

Sharon Brooks is a practising barrister in Cork and she is a qualified attorney in New York State. She is also currently studying a masters in International Human Rights and Public Policy Law at UCC.

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