Free speech is losing its freedom

The right of free speech has been extolled this week as a key feature of Western societies that must be protected from the ‘fifth column of Islam’- but it is this disgusting rhetoric that is leading us down a quandary towards a breakdown of our tolerant societies.


As everyone debates whether we should offend or not, I feel that most do not seem realise what the government wants to do regardless of either outcome, and while the below tweet is a sardonic parody, it does well to summarise current government policy.

Meeting security chiefs to discuss increasing email and phone intercept protocols before heading to France to support free speech.
— Iain Duncan Smith MP (@IDS_MP) January 10, 2015

The real facts behind ‘increasing email and phone intercept protocols’

This means increasing the ability of the British state security and intelligence services to see people’s calls, emails, internet activity – all communication that requires a satellite connection. The government also wants to supposedly ban social media that does not allow government access, with David Cameron saying “In our country, do we want to allow a means of communication between people which […] we cannot read?” When reading things like these, I firstly laugh in seeing how power seems to have gone to these people’s heads.

More prudently and trustingly, we suppose that these protocols are directed at those who will incite crime and terror within our democracies. However, we can never know this. We can never know who the ‘wrong’ people are because the Government will never reveal data on who they oversee and whether interceptions actually lead to thwarted crimes.  Why the increase of these powers threatens us has been outlined by Edward Snowden* in his many interviews and Glenn Greenwald’s TED talk **

More important is how their predictions are being realised in the current Conservative’s plans for their next Government. In October 2014 at the party conference, the Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, presented plans that they would scrap the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights, framing it as a cure to the the woe that mass immigration has become in the UK.

But there is more to the HRA than voters may realise, as it contains specific laws that protect us in ways that most of us don’t even know. Particularly, the right to privacy and right to free speech. Under the HRA, it is permissible to have minimal surveillance of individuals with evidence of their intent to spread hate, which I find acceptable, but without the HRA,  there would be no legal guidance as to what the Government could or couldn’t do – and banning social networks would be a real possibility.

Abolishing the HRA would put us in the club with Belarus, the only other country in the EU that didn’t sign up to the HRA, where photos or videos including the back of their leader’s head are banned (yes, really), and Kazakhstan, where authorities are ‘cracking down on free speech and dissent through misuse of overly broad laws,’ according to the Human Rights Watch. 3 years ago, the previous Attorney General for England and Wales warned us of this.

We suppose that our Government has a better understanding of rights, as David Cameron said, we wrote the Magna Carta. But judging from their election pledges, this does not seem to be the case***. It was suggested that human rights will only be used in the most important, and not ‘trivial’ cases. I wait in wonder as to the Government’s definition of ‘trivial’ cases involving human rights.

With rights like these, no one can allow the Conservatives to make good on their plans, because if we do, it will be to the detriment of everyone’s rights, including free speech, in Britain.

‘Support free speech’

Therefore you see why we must remain vigilant in the face of assertions that we will be ‘protected.’ You could lose your Facebook page, for goodness sake – think of how much time and effort you put into your overexaggerated online identity wasted!

Seriously though, in banning methods of communication, our government would actually be limiting our free speech and not protecting it – which is what this whole fuss has been made to be about.

This is what I am most concerned about: the easiness with which we seem to accept the idea it is justifiable to increase surveillance to increase protection of free speech and the free press. It does not compute with me how threatening our civil liberties can attempt to protect civil liberties. It is reminiscent of Orwellian doublethink.

Both free speech and the right to privacy are civil liberties that the government should not abridge or infringe. They work together as principles, not in balancing scales where more of one means more of less.  I certainly hope the Conservatives aren’t ordering a responsive pie chart tracking how much of each civil liberty is being enshrined and exercised, out of an arbitrary 100 that encompasses the existence of them all.

Yet this is the rhetoric. Don’t let them make you believe it is like this.
Most glaringly, The Sun tells their readers that because ‘Charlie Hebdo’ –

#JeSuisCharlie The Sun says… pic.twitter.com/cCxpUga9Ki
— The Sun (@TheSunNewspaper) January 7, 2015

‘Yet liberals still fret on the perceived assault on our civil liberties…’
– Let’s get one thing straight here, rights are not liberal. Rights are by their definition for everyone and encompass all to protect us from stupid suggestions like ones made in this comment.

Then, how should we respond to terrorism?

Parliament’s own select committee on state surveillance, made of of the most educated legal scholars and experienced MPs and civil servants in Britain, sees the importance in some targeted surveillance, and under the jurisdiction of the HRA. I take from the minutes:
134…The Government should provide clear and publicly available guidance as to the legal meanings of necessity and proportionality. We recommend that a complaints procedure be established by the Government and that, where appropriate, legal aid should be made available for Article 8 claims.
137.  The Government should consider expanding the remit of the Information Commissioner to include responsibility for monitoring the effects of government and private surveillance practices on the rights of the public at large under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Deciphering and summarising the legal speak; they would like the Government to have a more efficient and accountable response. Empirically judging the implications of state surveillance is advised in relation to our rights.
This is the way we stand in solidarity; by ensuring our response affirms our values, not infringes them. By ensuring the steps we take are necessary and proportional to threats, we develop a state not running fearfully to the nearest safe haven, but robust against threats with calculated responses outwitting terrorism. Oversight is the answer, not expansion – because with great power should come great responsibility, especially when people’s lives, families, values and rights are at stake.


*The Snowden affair – the leaking of documents due to his inability to condone employees observing private information that had nothing to do with finding terrorists, killers, or criminals and the NSA’s bulk collection processes of metadata (caller ID, location, length  – everything but what was said).
** He presents the case that mass state surveillance actually restricts free speech because it makes the wider society apprehensive of questioning government and makes it easier for government to cover up information and be less accountable. This is due to (possible, future) apprehensiveness over what speech/information would be acted on by those implementing mass state surveillance.

***For more: https://www.liberty-human-rights.org.uk/news/latest-news/legally-illiterate
About Che Applewhaite
Che Applewhaite is the Editor-in-Chief of Whippersnapper. He is a 18-year-old student who is passionate about understanding the issues today that he thinks will affect the future, primarily changes in international relations, feminism and global warming. His musical tastes are defined by a deep appreciation of jazz, minimalism, house and rap, though by no means are limited to those genres. He can often be found in a museum or bookshop on a weekend.