Culture

2020 end of year review: freedom of speech

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This end of year review is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team as they consider some of the themes that have dominated 2020. The views expressed in these reviews are those of the editors themselves and do not necessarily reflect the standpoint of Backbench as a whole.

Freedom of speech is one of the things that is supposedly held in high value by free and liberal societies. The right to free speech is not only the First Amendment of the United States’ Bill of Rights, but it is also guaranteed in the European Charter of Human Rights (Currently infused into British law via the Human Rights Act).

Yet, the concept of free speech has become increasingly contentious in recent years – and these disputes have continued through 2020. 

A retrospective on freedom of speech and censorship simply wouldn’t be complete without acknowledging the asserted existence of a ‘cancel culture’ in the western world.

This is the idea that free speech is not being threatened by a government, but by the tyranny of a mob who seek to silence any dissenting voices. Nowhere has this trope of a cancel culture been cited as frequently as in the debate between transgender activists and gender-critical feminists.

The former want the legal right to be recognised as the gender they identify with, whilst the latter fear that this will erode sex-based rights for women.

A recent Court of Appeal ruling could prove instrumental in this ongoing conflict between the trans community and feminists.

Lord Justice Bean and Mr Justice Warby ruled that free speech encompasses the right to offend, in response to an exchange on Twitter where a trans woman was misgendered. This ruling is expected to have far-reaching ramifications for policing in the United Kingdom as police in England and Wales recorded 120,000 non-criminal hate-incidents in the past five years, an average of 66 a day.

One such investigation concerned conservative podcaster Darren Grimes and historian David Starkey. Whilst appearing on Grimes’ podcast, Starkey remarked that slavery couldn’t possibly be counted as slavery because “so many damn blacks” survived.

Grimes and Starkey were both questioned by police in October over the incident, but the case was ultimately dropped. Interestingly, the investigation drew condemnation from people who weren’t ideological bedfellows with the right-leaning pair. 

Ash Sarkar, from Novara Media, tweeted out at the time, “this is a terrible misuse of police time. Darren Grimes is an absolute jar, but that’s not a criminal matter nor should it be treated as one.”

Whether this represents a wider shift in British attitudes towards hate speech laws is hard to say. There certainly has been more attention devoted to the topic within the media over the past few years. Jo Brand and Danny Baker facing police investigations for off-colour jokes in 2019, for example, provoked a lot of comment and pushback.

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Across the Channel, freedom of speech was brought to the forefront in far more gruesome circumstances.

Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher living in Paris, was murdered in October after he showed his students a cartoon portraying the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Paty had done this to prompt a discussion about freedom of expression among his students, some of whom were Muslim.

In Islam, there is much contention about whether it is permissible to create visual images of Muhammad. But it is broadly agreed that the images Paty used in his class – some of which portrayed Muhammad exposing his genitals – were, indeed, offensive.

For causing this offence, Paty was beheaded by a 18 year old Muslim refugee, who attacked him with a cleaver. Subsequently, ten people have been charged with assisting the killer, including a imam, a parent of a student and two students at the school.

The murder sent shockwaves through France. President Emmanuel Macron awarded Paty the Légion d’honneur (The highest French order of merit), praising him as a “quiet hero”.

Macron’s further statement that “We will not give up cartoons” and subsequent Government crackdowns on Islamism were remarkably swift. 

Some publications in the Anglosphere were criticised for their coverage of Paty’s murder, particularly The New York Times and The Washington Post, as neither paper used the term ‘jihadism’ in their reports. 

The British government were initially slow to respond to the murder, but eventually the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab issued a statement of support for France. This came after Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a boycott on French goods, in response to Macron’s defence of Muhammad cartoons and his remarks that Islam was a ‘religion in crisis’.

Even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau drew criticism after he tried to take a moderate approach to the controversy, and suggested that freedom of expression had limits. Trudeau cited the ‘shouting fire in a crowded theatre’ line, a common trope among those who believe free speech needs reining in. Trudeau, ultimately, had to walk back his statement.

Paty’s death could have easily been written off as ‘yet another’ terrorist attack. We have seen quite a few this year from Vienna to Reading, but this one had wider ramifications.

It brought issues of secularism, multiculturalism and religion to the forefront – in France at least. A poll conducted after Paty’s death found that 79% of respondents  thought Islamism had ‘declared war on France and the French Republic.’ 

It also showed that the united front often presented by western leaders against a united foe – Islamism – has been somewhat diluted since 2015, when leaders gathered together and marched in defiance of the Charlie Hebdo attackers. 

If Trudeau’s first response and Britain’s delayed reaction are anything to go by, there is not a widely agreed upon approach to controversial and provocative statements.

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Throughout much of the world, people live without the crucial rights of expression that the western world takes for granted.

In Hong Kong, critics of Beijing are being crushed underfoot, as pro-democracy teachers, legislators and activists are quashed by loyalists to the Chinese Communist Party. Most disturbingly, a recently set up hotline for informers received 2,500 tipoffs in a day – it’s no wonder that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers are expected to emigrate to the UK. 

Despite misgivings and controversies, the UK is broadly seen as a place where the right to express your opinion is upheld. 

It’s a shame that this is increasingly being seen as a partisan issue, rather than something we can all agree on. 

And it’s particularly disappointing that 2020, a year in which virtually everything was turned on it’s head, has done little to settle this dispute. 

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