Tag Archives: free speech

Is pornography really free speech?

Pornography is notoriously difficult to define, but it is estimated that it accounts for 12% of websites and 30% of all web traffic. And while broadcast media is subject to ever more content warnings, or outright censorship, on racial or cultural grounds, explicit sexual content has become ever more acceptable on our screens.

Now, porn isn’t my thing. Watching porn as a blind person is akin to standing outside McDonalds, engulfed in the delicious aroma of Big Mac and fries, while not being able to find the door. Despite that, being a staunch believer in free speech, I’ve always supported the right of its makers and consumers to get on and enjoy themselves, provided they are not harming others in the process.

I suspect this is a common view, but an episode of The philosopher’s Zone podcast I recently heard has left me wondering. The Philosopher’s Zone, published by ABC, examines a different philosophical topic every week with the help of experts. You can listen to the relevant episode here in which Caroline West, a philosopher from the University of Sydney and author of the chapter on pornography in the Oxford Handbook of Freedom of Speech, considers whether pornography should be classified as free speech, or even as speech at all.

It isn’t written speech, at least not at the point of consumption. And it would be hard to argue that what passes for a pornography movie script can stand in as a representation for the final product. It is also not, for the most part, spoken speech either. I don’t suppose many folks consume pornography for the witty repartee.

But even if we assume that pornography does count as speech, it still may not fall under the protective umbrella of free speech. Legal scholars and philosophers have argued that there are plenty of things we would count as speech in the normal sense that no one would argue should be protected. Examples include criminal solicitation, defamation, perjury, and whites only signs. In a similar vein, there are plenty of things that would be counted as free speech that are not normal speech. These include flag burning, silent vigils, and sit-ins.

The conclusion, as far as I understood it, was that when we define free speech, what really matters is the underlying justification for why that speech should be free. John Stuart Mill’s argument that rational debate and the free flow of ideas is more likely to lead to true and justified beliefs feels relevant when discussing the activities of Extinction Rebellion, but less so when considering the latest R-rated movie. The same goes for the vital role free speech plays in a well-functioning democracy.

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Prosecuting the Lowery photo football ‘fan’ sets a dangerous precedent

Football fans across the country were rightly appalled by pictures of two Sheffield Wednesday fans appearing to use the image of a young cancer victim to mock their opponents. One imagines that if, as seems likely, they both receive lengthy bans from all football grounds in the country, few tears will be shed. Certainly not from the Lowery family, who have acted with dignity throughout.

However, the ramifications have gone further than this. The pair were both arrested, and the man holding up the image has been charged with a public order offence and sentenced to 12 weeks in prison, suspended for 18 months, in addition to 200 hours of community service.

It’s not the first time that football fans have been prosecuted for similarly vile behaviour. Earlier this year, a Man United fan was fined £1000 for wearing a shirt mocking victims of the Hillsborough disaster, while a Plymouth fan was fined £750 for claiming on Twitter that their striker was “on fire like Mick Philpott’s house”.

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Has the BBC been impartial over Lineker?

There was a moment last night when I wondered if we were going to see tonight’s Match of the Day presented by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries after pundits and commenters alike responded to Gary Lineker’s suspension with solidarity.

Gary Lineker is a national treasure and sports presenter. While he is on telly, he talks about football. If he talked about politics, I doubt he’d have the following among football fans that he has. I never watch him because I am not a football fan. However, I have a very positive opinion of him from Twitter, where he has, for years, been chatting away about all sorts of stuff. He wasn’t a fan of Brexit, you know.

Lineker is far from the first BBC star to have political views. One of the first I remember was Kenny Everett, with his Let’s Bomb Russia comments and cruel jibes about Michael Foot back in 1983 at a Conservative Party election event.

And what about Ian Hislop and Paul Merton? They have rarely been complimentary about any Governemnt? Are they next in line for the chop?

When Rishi Sunak tweeted on Tuesday with some pride that he was removing modern slavery protections from people who arrive in this country illegally,  anyone with a commitment to human rights was rightly concerned:

Here was our Prime Minister basically giving a free pass to slavers who could then tell their victims, correctly, that there was no recourse to help. It’s hardly surprising people were angry.

Lineker’s response was strong but justifiably so. He called the Bill:

An immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s

The way in which the Tories have been othering vulnerable members of society, from immigrants to people who need social security to survive to trans people to fat people to those suffering from addictions, disabilities and mental ill health has been of concern for some years. Remember when David Cameron described migrants crossing the Channel as a “swarm?” It’s dehumanising and creates a culture where vulnerable people are seen as a threat and not as fellow human beings just like us. It’s done to set people against each other to distract from a failing government.

Our Tim Farron is both a mad football fan and passionately pro supporting refugees. He tweeted:

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The funny thing all those demanding “free speech” have in common

Having been active on Lib Dem social media for about eight years now, and being an admin or moderator of major Lib Dem groups for much of that time, I’ve witnessed many of the party’s internal debates lately.  I’ve noticed, with increasing despair, a trend in certain quarters to bemoan the fact that there are topics which people don’t like being debated within our party.

I would have far more patience with these internal ‘free speech’ arguments if it wasn’t for the fact that there’s only ever one thing that the people advancing them seem to want to talk about at the end of the day – and they’re desperate to talk about it; they’re just bursting to say it – except, there are all these mean people out there wanting them to stop, and hurting their feelings if they say it anyway.

Bluntly, it always seems to come down to how revolting they find LGBT+ people (particularly trans+ people) – how they wish they’d be less disgustingly LGBT+ in public where other people might actually have to do things like look at them and – horror! – share space with them.  And, of course, there are all these mean people wanting them to not say it, or at least to jolly well say it elsewhere, and there are all these intolerant LGBT+ folks and their allies with the temerity to call them things like “illiberal,” and “TERF,” which are terrible things to call them, because only Bad People™ are called those things.

We should not be surprised that people who are the subjects of a debate want to be a part of it.  It’s also not surprising that they won’t want to debate, particularly not endlessly and at length:

1) their worth as human beings,

2) their retaining rights that they currently do, and

3) any reduction of those rights (such as, say, their ability to use toilets, except in private homes)

It would be neither “Liberal” nor moral to insist that anyone sit by smiling sweetly while others debate, in public, whether they should have, or keep having, rights that those actually having the debate already enjoy.  That wouldn’t be “allowing debate” – that would be bullying.  Wanting people to stop doing it isn’t “stifling free speech”, or “stopping people from feeling offended” – it’s protecting an embattled minority from psychological abuse by people who either want to inflict that abuse in the first place, or are too pig-ignorant to see that that’s what they’re doing (and too righteously-offended at the very idea that they’re being insensitive to begin to think that perhaps the people asking them to stop might have a point).

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Observations of an ex pat – Anglo Saxon Free Speech

The blizzard of alleged lies and tales of blackmail emanating from 10 Downing Street is truly disturbing. But they obscure even more alarming policy shifts which threaten longer-lasting effects than any fall-out from partygate.

Nearly the top of the list of the partially-buried problems are the threats to free speech, a free press, freedom of assembly and the freedom to protest.

Britain and America have led the way in establishing and protecting those rights. They insisted that they were written into the UN Charter and Germany’s post-war Basic Law and their example has inspired others around the world. Now both countries are heading the opposite direction. In the Press Freedom Index compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Britain is ranked 33rd and the US is a dismal 44 out of 170 countries.

The blame for America’s poor ranking is laid almost exclusively at the door of ex-president Donald Trump and the Republican Party he has reshaped in his own image. Trump enabled and emboldened free press opponents by attacking the media as “enemies of the people” and branding criticism of his administration as “fake news.” With the Republicans likely to regain control of Congress in this year’s mid-term November elections, the media is preparing for a fresh onslaught.

In Britain, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives have long-regarded the BBC as a hotbed of liberalism. They started their term in office by reducing the number of ministerial interviews on the world’s most respected news outlet. Then this week Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced that she was freezing government funding for the BBC.

On top of that, the beleaguered Johnson government’s proposed Police, Sentencing and Courts Bill will effectively ban traditional rights of free speech, demonstrations and protests by giving police the right to shut down any gathering that causes “serious disruption.” The government decides what is a “serious disruption.”

Politicians around the world and of every political persuasion have a love-hate relationship with the media and protesters. Those in power seek to curb freedom of speech because it exposes nefarious activities undertaken to retain power. Those seeking power recognise it as an essential tool for gaining power, only to jettison their support once it has served its purpose. The result has been a perpetual struggle between media, the government and vested interests.

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Tolerance and free speech

When I joined the Liberal Party, as a young Liberal, in 1964, I joined a party that wanted to build a society where all possessed liberty and none should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity.

The party expected broad agreement with the ideas of a Liberal society but tolerated people who had a variety of views on the issues of the day.

So, whilst the majority view in the party was against capital punishment, in favour of legalising abortion, divorce law reform, decriminalisation of consenting homosexual relations between adults and of joining the EEC, there were those who differed from majority party opinion on any of these issues and argued them passionately.

MPs were expected to follow their consciences on social issues and were not whipped on them.

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What took you so long, Twitter?

Twitter logoFor years now we’ve rolled our eyes around mid morning when Donald Trump woke up and found his phone and Twitter app. “Oh god, what now?” we would groan as we read the latest instalment of populist bile.

This week, entirely predictably, it all got dangerous and people lost their lives. Families are mourning loved ones whose deaths were entirely preventable. And the events which led up to them were highly predictable.

Twitter, who have for years hosted his most outrageous statements without taking action finally lost patience with Trump, permanently banning …

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Patrolling the new frontier: Regulating online extremism

A month after the horrific attack in Christchurch, which was live-streamed on Facebook, New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern said: “It’s critical that technology platforms like Facebook are not perverted as a tool for terrorism, and instead become part of a global solution to countering extremism.”

We wholeheartedly agree. Neo-Nazi and other far-right material, alongside Islamist and far-left content, spread swiftly on Facebook, with a potential to reach thousands in a matter of hours. Facebook is not alone; Social media platforms have been used by extremists to radicalise and inspire acts of terrorism across the world. Exposure to online extremism is not the sole cause of radicalisation, but in combination with other risk factors, it can weaponise a latent disposition towards terrorist violence.

Preventing online extremism has become a priority for policy-makers in Europe. In the U.K., the Home Office and DCMS have proposed to regulate internet platforms in the Online Harms White Paper, which considers a wide range of harms, including extremism and terrorism.

We offer several recommendations. First, a clear definition of extremist content can prevent uncertainty and over-blocking, and help ensure content is judged consistently by human moderators. Once human moderators have determined something is extremist content, platforms should use hashing technology to screen out known extremist content at the point of upload. One example of such technology is the Counter Extremism Project’s eGlyph – a tool developed by Hany Farid, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley and member of the Counter Extremism Project’s advisory board.

eGlyph is based on ‘robust hashing’ technology, capable of swiftly comparing uploaded content to a database of known extremist images, videos, and audio files, thereby disrupting the spread of such content. We have made this ground-breaking technology available at no cost to organisations wishing to combat online violent extremism.

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We should demand free speech but use it with kindness

Free speech is important to us as Liberals. So much so we made it a fundamental human right. The freedom to exchange ideas and challenge orthodoxy is what leads to new radical plans to make a better future. Without debate we have dictatorship, literally by dictation. 

And yet, often we choose to limit how freely we use our speech. Classically, this is put as the “Does free speech include demanding the right to shout ‘fire!’ in a crowded theatre?” question.

A modern way of putting that, which we seem to be seeing appear quite a lot, looks to be: “Does free speech include demanding the right to compare the government of Israel to the Nazis?”

To which my answer is: “I will not stop you saying that. But you could perhaps choose not to.”

Many members of the Jewish community in the UK are living in a state of increased fear caused in no small part by the actions of a tiny but noisy number of Labour Party members (and former members) and the inactions of the Labour leadership.

I would like to think we can do better than that.

For a lot of Jewish people the idea of “Israel” is so much deeper than merely a specific geographic place – it is an expression of Jewish and religious identity, and goes to the heart of their sense of self and family and community. It is impossible to describe just how hurtful, wounding and cruel it is to link that idea of self to the Nazi Holocaust that was in large part about exterminating that identity. We just should not do it.

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LibLink: Nick Clegg: Free speech must not be the victim in fighting extremism

In this week’s Standard column, Nick Clegg looks at the controversy surrounding Donald Trump and Tyson Fury and questions the knee jerk reactions that call for them to be banned:

But there are always things in life which are unpleasant and offensive. Donald Trump is a dangerous loudmouth. Tyson Fury is a terrible role model. Germaine Greer is wrong on transgender rights.

Maybe it’s the instant, push-button, “something must be done” culture of the internet age. Adding your name to an online petition without a second’s thought is a gratifyingly rapid reflex to something that is irritating or outrageous in the news. It’s the digital equivalent of children stamping their feet in anger or frustration. My kids do it all the time.

But in the real world we can’t just wish away everything we don’t like. More importantly, banning stuff doesn’t mean it goes away — it just pops up somewhere else. Barring Trump from the UK is the political equivalent of playing Whack-a-Mole — he’ll just pop up somewhere else, twice as loud.

In a liberal society, offensive views should be challenged, not blocked. Bigots should be exposed and defeated in argument. Big-mouthed cretins should be ridiculed, not turned into martyrs (and certainly not elected president).

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Banning the Lord’s prayer – how outrageous (if it were true)

The tabloids do love a good moan about how Christians are persecuted in this country.  It’s lost on them that representatives of the faith enjoy a privileged position in our Parliament and national life. So today’s stooshie about the Church of England’s ad, or, even more sensationally, “the Lord’s Prayer”  being “banned” is an early Christmas Present for the tabloid editor.

Except nobody has banned anything as the subsequent prevalence of this short advert proves.. In fact, if the agency who runs the advertising for the three biggest cinema chains had accepted the ad, they would have been breaking their own policy, which is not to accept religious or political adverts. They were a bit burned last year when they received negative feedback after running independence referendum ads in Scottish cinemas and were understandably reluctant to repeat the exercise.

You have to hand it to the Church of England for playing this brilliantly. Without handing over a penny, everyone in the country now knows how to access their advert. It’s embedded into many news articles about the row, it’s on their website, it’s on You Tube, it is everywhere.  They have managed to simultaneously complain about it being banned while ensuring that many more people have seen it than would have done over Mockingjay and popcorn.

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Opinion: Freedom of speech?

Southampton University is under attack: it is planning a conference on ‘International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism’  in April.  Paris University has been forced to cancel a conference entitled: ‘Israel Apartheid is real’.

I have recently attended two conferences on Islam, one of which also came under threat.

So when is free speech permissible and when not?

At my local university I have been shocked at the racist and Islamophobic comments made in talks and seminars by those who support Israel unreservedly.  Had I made similar comments about Jews and Judaism, I would have been thrown out.  Islam is no more homogenous than Judaism or Christianity  and the way it is practised is as much cultural, political and historical as any other. When I condemn Saudi Arabia or ISIS I am not condemning Islam as a whole, nor do I delegitimize Saudi as a State. On the contrary I am often defending Islam. When I criticise Israel, as a Jew myself, I am not attacking Judaism, I am criticising a regime that gives Judaism a bad name and when I criticise the USA, I am often criticising those who give Christianity a bad name.

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Opinion: Let’s look at the harm caused by Page 3

Given that Page 3 wasn’t in The Sun this week, it sure took up a lot of media space, especially among Lib Dems. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that loads of us want to wade into a fight that was framed as free speech and sexual expression vs gender equality and quality news reporting. But that’s not actually what’s going on at all: so here is a rundown of what Page 3 is, and why it’s harmful.

Page 3 is normalising objectification of women. The Sun makes printing nude women for the sole purpose of titillation in a national newspaper, which would otherwise be totally weird, normal. Images of nude women and breasts are perfectly normal and widely available in a sexual context (see, 80% of the internet), but a daily national newspaper is not the place for it, because it’s supposed to be for news. “Women have breasts” is pretty much the oldest story there is. Unless, like my mother, your breasts make it into the paper because they are testing the new mammogram machine at your local hospital they don’t need to be in there. If the Guardian decided to swap Polly Toynbee for a massive naked man next week, I’d find that equally inappropriate, because quality reporting is not about getting your rocks off (unless you have a particular fetish for bad photos of Ed Milliband).

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Charlie Hebdo – in sympathy and solidarity

The news from Paris today is deeply shocking. There are twelve people who are reported dead and four reported injured by the attack at the offices of satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. Four cartoonists and the editor-in-chief of the magazine are reported to be among the dead. We express our sincere sympathy to those who have lost loved ones and those affected by the tragedy. We also express our solidarity with the French people and Charlie Hebdo magazine in standing for free speech and against such mindless acts.

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Opinion: Liberals must think of ways to incentivise free expression

 

The recent withdrawal of The Interview from general theatrical release (later followed by online publication and limited release at selected theatres), following threats from what is currently believed to be a North Korean hacking group, has generated an international debate on corporate censorship in western societies. As liberals who believe in free expression and a free society, it is vital that we take part in this conversation.

It would be incorrect and unfair to place all the blame for this fiasco on Sony, the parent company of the film’s distributors, Columbia Pictures. Their initial decision to pull the movie was partly driven by the fact that an increasing number of cinemas were refusing to screen the film, and their efforts to distribute it via video-on-demand providers had were initially met with a similar response.

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Opinion: Does the Prime Minister really care about free speech?

The Prime Minister is concerned that Leveson’s “essential” legislative underpinning for press self-regulation would cross a line. “We should be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press”, he stated, saying that we should be proud of our “great tradition” of freedom of speech. But the UK has many laws that restrict citizens’ free expression and which we should be deeply ashamed of. Will the PM be campaigning to end these?

There’s ‘Section 5’, under which – for example – a 16 year old was summoned to court for holding a placard saying, “Scientology is not a religion. It is a dangerous cult.” Thankfully, after pressure from MPs and the Reform Section 5 campaign, the Home Office consulted on the law and – separately – the Lords will tomorrow vote on amending it. Reformists (including the Deputy Prime Minister) can presumably count on the PM’s support!

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Opinion: Criminal laws are freezing out freedom of speech

Much has been made of the “chilling effect” of British defamation laws on public debate in recent years. Given that backdrop, the lack of furore over our criminal, as opposed to civil, regulations of speech is rather difficult to understand.

Quite arguably, the chilling effect of these so-called ‘speech offences’ has been even more pervasive, akin to a Siberian winter at times, due to the woefully inadequate safeguards and catch-all wording that characterises almost each and every one of …

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Opinion: Fitna

What is the matter with Chris Huhne? On the great freedom-of-speech versus right-to-offend argument, he has always struck just about the right note – for instance, on Holocaust denial and the Danish Cartoons. But now his judgement appears to have deserted him when last week he backed the decision of the British government to exclude a Dutch politician for the unforgivable crime of saying something nasty about Islam. Coming on the twentieth anniversary of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, the timing could hardly be worse.

There’s really nothing quite like a religious question to upend our political and moral intuitions and reduce any sort of reasoned argument to rubble. So it was that Chris declared Fitna to be “definitely inciting people to violence,” on the Today programme. Definitely inciting people to violence? It is true that the 17 minute film does contain endless incitements to violence. The trouble is that all the incitement is coming from the mouths of Muslim clerics. It is also true that these images are interleaved with some fairly offensive written statements. But they are mostly quotations from the Koran. Could it be that Chris got a bit confused?

Jo Swinson fared a little better on Any Questions by distancing herself from Chris and acknowledging that Fitna did not in her view incite violence. But then she drifted off into some fairly banal platitude. “Any text can be twisted,” she said. “If you want to pick and choose, you can actually create something horrific out of any text that you like.” Any text, Jo? I’d love to see a version of Fitna based on the Liberal Democrat constitution. You could juxtapose a statement about freeing people from poverty, ignorance and conformity, with some beard and sandals imagery maybe. Enough to incite anyone to violence, I’m sure you’d agree. Could it just be that some texts are in fact nastier than others?

It’s a common objection of course – that the offending quotations have been “taken out of context.” But what I’d like to know is precisely what context would make all the misogyny, homophobia, and violence contained in our various sacred texts acceptable? If we wish to read either the Bible or the Koran “in context,” then it might first help to understand who wrote them – to wit, primitive men who would be completely outshone in knowledge and understanding by a modern twelve-year-old with access to Wikipedia. No, the people who are truly taking the holy books out of context are called Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc. who claim that these writings are the “word of God” – whether it be that they believe this literally or in some ambiguous manner.

I don’t think I much care for Geert Wilders. His political hero is Margaret Thatcher – that is rarely a good sign. His perfectly reasonable desire to move freely between nations is undermined to some extent by his own anti-immigration politics. He should know that you can’t defeat an ideology by erecting physical barriers and pulling up the drawbridge. Calling for the Koran to be banned is totally daft. It would be quite impossible, even assuming such a thing were desirable which it isn’t. But I do share one thing in common with Wilders, namely that I am not prepared to read the Koran and pretend that it means the exact opposite of what it says, for the sake of some political expediency.

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Was Chris Huhne right to say Geert Wilders should be banned from the UK?

As the BBC reports:

A Dutch MP who called the Koran a “fascist book” has been sent back to the Netherlands after attempting to defy a ban on entering the UK. Freedom Party MP Geert Wilders had been invited to show his controversial film – which links the Islamic holy book to terrorism – in the UK’s House of Lords.

But Mr Wilders, who faces trial in his own country for inciting hatred, has been denied entry by the Home Office. He told the BBC it was a “very sad day” for UK democracy.

Interviewed on this morning’s BBC Radio 4 Today …

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Evan wins Secularist of the Year 2009

We may be only five weeks into 2009, but Lib Dem MP Evan Harris has already won an award – Secularist of the Year. The BBC reports:

The Liberal Democrat was named joint winner, with Lord Avebury, for their work in abolishing the blasphemy libel law in England and Wales. Dr Harris called the law “ancient, discriminatory and illiberal” as well as not compliant with human rights and against free speech. The offences of blasphemous libel and blasphemy were abolished last summer. …

Dr Harris has also campaigned to separate religion and the state claiming the current system has a number

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