Everybody in public life in the US and UK claims to believe in freedom of expression and a free press. Strange, then, that a growing number of people should now choose to exercise that freedom in order to declare that it should be limited—at least for others.
The mantra of the moment is, “Of course I believe in free speech—BUT…” And the “buts” are getting bigger. It is high time to make a stand for freedom of expression and the freedom of the press with no ifs or buts, as liberties that we must defend for all or none at all.
On both sides of the Atlantic, attention focuses on the overt threats to freedom of expression posed by state interference, as illustrated by the scandals over the NSA spying revelations and the Justice Department secretly seizing AP journalists’ phone records. In Britain, where I work as a journalist, we still labor under the worst defamation laws in the civilized world. These laws, under which truth is no defense and the defendant is assumed guilty until proven otherwise, attract powerful ‘libel tourists’ from around the world, seeking to use the London courts to silence their critics; US courts have rightly refused to enforce judgements imposed by UK libel courts.
There are also, however, even more insidious challenges to freedom of expression today that attract less opposition—and can even be supported by the same supposedly liberal voices that will speak out against state censorship.
The problem is clearest in the UK, where the “free speech, BUT…” lobby dominates public debate. Over there, folks like me are labeled “First Amendment fundamentalists”—and that is meant as a damning criticism—for daring to suggest that British culture might have something to learn from the US safeguards on freedom of expression.
Where the US has the historic 45 words of the First Amendment, we got the one million words of Lord Justice Leveson’s report earlier this year proposing statutory regulation of the press. This has been the cutting edge of a crusade to purge the UK press of things that are not to the taste of those who deem “popular” a dirty word. In my book I describe it as “ethical cleansing.” But because the authorities used the phone-hacking scandal at Rupert Murdoch’s now-shuttered News of the World as the pretext for the purge, Leveson was supported by many liberal politicians, lobbyists, journalists, and journalism academics who fear and loath the tabloids and their readers. Of course nobody in the UK press will defend the illegal hacking of the voicemail messages of innocent victims of crime, especially those of abducted and murdered teenager Milly Dowler. But individual crimes that should have been a narrow matter for the police have been turned into the excuse for an official assault on, in the words of Leveson, the entire “culture, practice and ethics” of the British press.
Even in the Land of the Free and the First Amendment, the “Free Speech, BUT” group has been gaining ground. One big battleground is the college campus, where controversial speech codes and restrictive “free speech zones” have been backed in the name of countering hate speech and promoting “tolerance.” A joint letter from the US Education Department and Justice Department, sent to the University of Montana in May in response to the college’s mishandling of serious sexual assault cases, announced that speech could now be considered sexual harassment, and that this would be ‘a blueprint for colleges and universities throughout the country.’ This is a striking example of a dangerous modern phenomenon: We might call it intolerant tolerance, or illiberal liberalism.
And in the US, too, despite the constitutional protection of the free press, many would like to exclude “unethical” tabloid journalism from that hard-won freedom. Hence the new California law against paparazzi photographing celebrities with their children has provoked relatively little controversy, since it should “only” affect gossip sheets and scandalmongers. Those wishing to limit press freedom on both sides of the Atlantic have had considerable success in using high-profile victims of media intrusion and children as effective “human shields” for their campaign.
The creeping culture of You-Can’t-Say-That needs to be challenged on every front. The biggest danger facing freedom of expression in our societies will not be sweeping state censorship, but the creation of a stultifying atmosphere of conformism and the sanitization of the press and public debate.
Of course, the exercise of freedom of speech and of the press can cause plenty of trouble. But freedom of expression is always a messy affair. As George Orwell put it in his 1945 essay, “The Freedom of the Press,” written as an (ironically unpublished) preface to Animal Farm: “If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.”
However you or I might wish it to be, the hard truth is that a free press does not have to conform to anybody else’s notions of ethical journalism, or of what is too offensive to say. The lofty principle of press freedom can often be exploited for low purposes. My hero John Wilkes, the 18h-century pioneer of the struggle for press freedom in England (who is now far better known in the US than his homeland), used that freedom to publish everything from salacious gossip to upper-class pornography. The fact that some might abuse precious liberties should never be an excuse for allowing the authorities to encroach on them.
Not everybody who writes in a newspaper, rants on the Web, or says something in public will have the wisdom of Socrates, the piety of Jesus, or the good manners of Hugh Grant. Tough. There is no requirement to pass a morality test to earn the right to freedom of expression. Free speech is not a gift, like charity, to be handed down only to those deemed deserving. Freedom of speech and of the press is for fools, scoundrels, and scuttlebutt merchants, too.
Perhaps we need a cultural revolution in the West, to reinvigorate the idea of free speech as an indivisible liberty. As my old friend Karl Marx wrote 170 years ago, in his youthful defense of press freedom against the Prussian state censors who saw an irresponsible press as a danger to society, “Lack of freedom is the real mortal danger for mankind…[Y]ou cannot enjoy the advantages of a free press without putting up with its inconveniences. You cannot pluck the rose without its thorns!” Amen to that.