John Hayes MP on the importance of free speech
Free speech is the foundation upon which our democracy stands. Should we lose our liberty to worship, assemble, write or speak freely, we will lose much of what our forefathers worked for centuries to establish.
Which is why, the current deliberate, coordinated attempts to stifle debate by regulating and restricting the marketplace of ideas – ironically, finding its most extreme incarnation in our universities - should concern us all.
The numerous examples of cancelled debates, ‘no-platformed’ speeches and individuals silenced in the name of ‘political correctness’ are alarming. The chilling suppression of views which challenge the modern orthodoxy has ruined the lives of principled men and women. Last week, in Parliament, I was pleased to have the opportunity to speak in defence of the great philosopher, Professor Roger Scruton, following the sorry attempt to smear his reputation on the basis of his deeply-held Christian beliefs.
Constant attacks on open and honest debate serve only to drive ideas underground, embolden views which are truly abhorrent and radicalise those who no longer feel they are able to think or speak independently. What’s more, it creates a hyper-partisan environment, forcing those with legitimate concerns to the margins.
If, for example, individuals worried about immigration are persistently smeared as ‘racists’, it will be far easier for those seeking to use fear to spread spite and hate. Words previously charged with significance have become meaningless political slurs, abused and degraded. Now when someone is accused of racism, we can no longer be sure whether they’re a real bigot or simple someone with whom the accuser disagrees.
The motivations of those attempting to limit free expression are two-fold. Some arrogantly believe that it is their duty to protect us from anything that might offend. Whereas others see considerable political advantage in restricting opinions which counter their own.
History is littered with powerful men and women who, claiming an exclusive understanding of truth, have oppressed and cajoled those who dared to challenge them. Without freedom of expression, we are powerless to stand up to those determined to subjugate. As Winston Churchill said: ‘The truth is incontrovertible. Malice may attack it, ignorance may deride it, but in the end, there it is’.
For some, an echo chamber of reaffirmation can be tempting. Likewise, it can be difficult to remain polite and calm whilst listening to ideas with which we passionately disagree. Nonetheless, it is essential that we do just that. If not, we risk descending into an aggressive tribalism, prizing victory over truth.
However, heartfelt pleas for an environment in which open debate and free expression can flourish are no longer sufficient. The Government must step in to protect the basic entitlement of individuals to speak freely.
This mission is particularly pressing in universities, where speakers have on occasion been harassed, heckled and physically prevented from attending events, seminars and debates. Those responsible for such behaviour must be disciplined by their universities. Where higher education establishments fail to do so, often encouraged, no doubt, by politically-motivated elements, their Government funding should be cut.
We must not bow to those who seek to sterilise our language. Of course, we should always converse with consideration, respect and humility, as well as which there are well-established laws against defamation and inciting violence, but the definition of offence is now so broad many feel that is not permissible to say anything which might offend anyone. Free speech matters much more than prejudiced political correctness.