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Civility, not laws, will protect free speech

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IF YOU have lived in a one-party state, as I did for a while, freedom of speech is something you cherish having experienced its partial absence. The question is only over the limits, if any, to such freedom and by whom they are imposed.

Words have immense power both for good and evil. Millions will have been inspired by Nelson Mandela saying ‘You will achieve more in this world through acts of mercy than you will through acts of retribution.’ Conversely the descriptions of other people as ‘untermenschen’ (sub-human) and ‘cockroaches’ were used to inspire genocides in the twentieth century.

I recently attended an international conference on social media and freedom of speech. While there was general agreement on the need to prevent and remove extremist and violent material – which in most countries would in any case be illegal – there was much debate over how to deal with abuse.

The seriousness of this was highlighted by two female parliamentarians who spoke of the sexism and abuse which they and their colleagues encounter online all the time. As a former MP, I know that this is true in the UK as well, with female MPs receiving far more personal abuse than men. Understandably, those on the receiving end of such filth often wish to see more intervention and restrictions on material which causes such offence.

But others – including women also on the receiving end of abuse – argued that the balance between regulation and causing offence must always be in favour of free speech. This was also the view of the British courts in a judgement just prior to the conference which I was able to quote: ‘Free speech includes not only the inoffensive, but the irritating, the contentious, the eccentric, the heretical, the unwelcome and the provocative, and that the freedom only to speak inoffensively is not worth having.’ I will come back to this later.

The conference was held in Doha. It was organised by the Qatari Human Rights Commission and supported by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the European Parliament and the International Federation of Journalists.   

After severe criticism of its human rights record, Qatar has made recent improvements, particularly on rights for workers in the construction industry where fatalities had been scandalous. However, the Qatari government recently introduced a new article in the penal code imposing up to five years in prison for spreading rumours or false news with ill-intent. This seems to restrict the space for free expression, especially as there is no definition of who decides what is a rumour or false news, nor the standards used to determine it.

The conference came up with a number of principles to guide governments, among them:

–       Ensuring that any restrictions are lawful, necessary and proportionate;

–       Repealing any law which unduly criminalises or restricts expression online or offline, while prohibiting any advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence;

–       Refraining from establishing laws that would require proactive monitoring or censorship;

–       Adopting models of regulation where only independent judicial authorities (rather than government agencies) become arbiters of lawful expression.

This is welcome and it is helpful to have the authority of the United Nations High Commissioner behind it. Will it make any difference when so many of the most influential countries at the United Nations are in breach of these principles?

Certainly. The principles set standards against which citizens can judge their governments and give encouragement to those pushing for greater freedoms; and for any government seeking to improve their approach they provide a template. But ultimately any real and lasting change can come only from within a country, and not be dictated by the UN. I hope that many states, including Qatar as host of the conference, will look again at their statute books in the light of the principles, and remove or improve laws which restrict free speech.

Yet the conundrum which many participants in Doha expressed remains. Online abuse is rife, poisons debate and deepens divides. In a largely unregulated space provided by social media, how do we discourage personal abuse and endless vitriol?

There are at least two parts to this. The first is in the hands of the social media platforms. Strong personal ‘ad hominem’ abuse should be removed and persistent offenders barred. That in no way inhibits real freedom of speech. In fact, it is likely to encourage debate as so many are currently put off by abuse.

The other part, I believe, lies in our hands in greater civility and courtesy. Tim Farron MP recently described civility as a traditional British value that needs to be restored, and I agree with him. Civility has also been defined not just as politeness, but ‘disagreeing without disrespect’. We can fall into the mindset of violently disagreeing without stopping to consider the merit of the other argument. Even if we see no merit in it, we should at least try to value the person who is making it.

I am not proposing that people should steer clear of controversy; rather that we take some unnecessary heat out of how we debate. By that I mean that we stop the online equivalent of standing in the street and screaming abuse.

Rediscovering civility could improve our interactions and relationships throughout society and reap benefits in the online world. We only have to look at the statistics on online bullying and teenage mental health to see the need for such a move. More emphasis on the British value of ‘mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths and beliefs’ taught in our schools is surely needed, and can be passed on from students to parents and their wider families.

When social media are used to abuse others, the harm done is not only to the person who is attacked but also to those who rely on the opportunity which social media offers to report on how their personal, political or religious freedoms are being attacked. Repressive governments will find it even easier to justify to closing down what they can portray as a lawless space than one where debate and interaction is carried out with reasonable respect.

Freedom of speech whether on or offline is one of our most precious inheritances. As with many inheritances, it needs protection by a combination of law and personal responsibility. The Doha conference’s principles recognise the importance of limiting social media regulation. Civility is up to us.

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Jeremy Lefroy
Jeremy Lefroy was Conservative MP for Stafford from 2010 until he stepped down at the 2019 general election.

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