Are we HYPOCRITES when it comes to freedom of speech?

A new report says that extremist views should be allowed to be heard on campus, but does a resulting backlash highlight our own hypocrisy when it comes to freedom of speech?

Freely available figures show that between 2000 and 2009, 10,500 people died through the misuse of drugs, over 31,000 people were killed on the roads, over 82,000 people died as a result of alcohol, yet in comparison only 52 people died as a result of terrorism in Britain.

On February 5th, David Cameron called for ‘muscular liberalism’ in confronting homegrown terrorism. But how are we supposed to prevent active extremism whilst staying open to new opinions?

4 days ago, this point was illustrated in another speech, this time given by Hillary Clinton, on the importance of freedom of speech in the age of the internet, and on the awfulness of foreign nations preventing their citizens’ freedom of expression.

During the speech, 71 year-old veteran CIA analyst, Ray McGovern, silently stood up and turned his back on Clinton, in protest at the USA’s treatment of Wikileaks suspect Bradley Manning. In shockingly hypocritical scenes that followed, two police officers forcefully dragged McGovern out of the studio, roughed him up, and left him battered, bruised and bleeding in jail. McGovern is now being charged with disorderly conduct. See a video of the incident and pictures below:

VIDEO (McGovern interrupting Clinton & being escorted out)

A report published yesterday by Universities UK, an umbrella group for university vice-chancellors, calls for vice-chancellors to allow the voice of extremist speakers on university campuses. This new report is obviously going to put universities in a difficult situation, where they now need to find the important balance between the legal limits of free speech and inciting hatred.

Whilst I find the views of extremists as stomach-churning as most of us do, many people do not see restricting freedom of speech as a problem, when I (and I would hope the majority) most definitely do.

Freedom of speech is not just about the right of an individual to speak, but also about the right of an audience to listen, whether that audience contains 1 person or 1,000. In 2005, an invitation from St. Andrews University to Nick Griffin to come and join a debate on multiculturalism was withdrawn for fear of large student protests, and a similar event occurred at Bath University in 2007. The students that were successful in stopping the debates may not have wanted to hear what Griffin had to say, but through their actions they denied other students their opportunity, and right, to listen.

Why should other people decide what we can or can’t hear? Why should some people be given the power to draw the line and say what is right and what is wrong, when that should arguably be an individual choice?

These problems present themselves when people try to curb freedom of expression, but we usually only become aware of them when there is an injustice involved.

However, such injustices can often be very controversial. The Austrian government has a law in place that makes it illegal, upon penalty of jail, to deny the existence of the Holocaust. In 2006, British historian David Irving was jailed in Austria for 3 years for disagreeing with the Austrian government’s accepted form of history.

Whilst Irving’s views are extremely controversial, what sets him apart from other people that share his opinion such as Nick Griffin, is that Irving was (and is) a very well respected historian, who based his opinion on years of thorough research. I’m not at all suggesting that his research therefore makes his opinion correct, but it does make him even more entitled to voice it.

This is where freedom of speech is stripped back to its basics. If Nick Griffin were the only man in Britain to deny the events of the Holocaust, then freedom of speech should protect his right to say so even more than it protects the majority voice. It should equally protect our right to listen so that we have the opportunity to hear what he has to say so that we can benefit from it by at least proving he is wrong, for example. After all, what is freedom of expression if it doesn’t protect the freedom of the people that think differently?

If you defend freedom of speech, then you have to follow and respect these conditions that accompany it. We can’t pick and choose where and when certain things become offensive, and where and when certain things can be said. We also don’t have the right to be shielded from offence.

Personally, I am supportive of the report, as the way to fight extremist views is by challenging them with truth and knowledge, not by pushing them into the corner to let them fester. We are much more likely to prove David Cameron wrong in his thinking that multiculturalism in Britain has failed by doing things this way, rather than through censorship and banning.