Freedom of speech ≠ freedom from consequence
In the wake of Tommy Robinson being released early from his 13 month sentence for breaking contempt of court laws, his far-right supporters have descended in to celebration as they believe his initial incarceration was an example of the state curtailing Robinson’s free speech. Though this is clearly not the reason for his incarceration it does throw up interesting questions about people’s perception of what free speech is. It also begs the question; why are debates around free-speech usually brought to the forefront because of those with hateful agendas?
Throughout the world we have seen the real consequences of the pursuit of “freedom of expression”. On the 7th of January 2015 the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo saw twelve people murdered in France. This was in response to the satirical magazine depicting the Prophet Mohammed, much frowned upon by areas of Islam. The horrible act of extremism was met with solidarity by the French public and much of the rest of the world. The following rhetoric was that of a “brave”, “boundary pushing” magazine that would not be silenced by extremism. What the conversation failed to extend to though, was the fact that whilst a mass shooting was clearly a disproportionate and evil response: intentionally publishing material specifically to offend a specific religious group, is unreasonable and inflammatory. Too often hiding behind the mantra of everyone’s right to “free speech” completely circumvents the reality that people also have a right to not have hateful ideology spewed at them and in the public domain.
Eni Aluko, an established and decorated women’s footballer had enjoyed a career in the England team for 11 years before publicly accusing coach Mark Sampson of making racist comments to her. Though an investigation showed she was telling the truth, Sampson was only relieved of his position several months later (for unrelated reasons) whilst Aluko has not played for England in the two years since. This scenario echoes the experience of Colin Kaepernick, an American football player who kneeled during the national anthem in 2016 to protest racial injustice and wealth inequality in the United States. He has since been blackballed by the NFL and is a free agent, spending much of his time doing charity work to further educate people of the disparity in American society. The point of these two examples, is that if people were genuinely concerned about freedom of speech and expression as a whole, they would spend their time directing their outrage at two enormous sporting franchises who have ruined perfectly capable athletes careers, for exercising their own freedom of speech to highlight injustice. Instead though this empty buzz phrase is only used to shroud bigotry.
This facade of caring about freedom of speech detracts from the importance of accountability. This is where the problem lies. Too often when a conversation about freedom of speech and expression is underway, it has been brought about my someone who “wants their country back” rather than someone who is interested in Julian Assange. It is a rarity that such people would even remember the social and political importance of a Premier League footballer's super-injunction in 2011. I literally cannot specify who the player is in this article for legal reasons, despite the fact it is common knowledge. A lot of the same football fans who would denounce punishment for singing racist and homophobic chants at matches as “PC gone mad” have probably never questioned why managers and players are fined for publicly criticising referees even if it’s cordially. Surely this would be the perfect target for the freedom of speech brigade to set themselves upon, except it doesn’t impact them directly so they don’t care.
The point of highlighting these examples is this: throughout our modern world there are plenty of examples of freedom of speech and expression being prohibited whilst a lot of the people claiming to be defenders of free speech have nothing to say on the matter. Until someone like Tommy Robinson is involved, because he represents them and their own (frankly ludicrous) views. When this is the case it becomes clear that his supporters and those like them are not actually vying for a world in which we have free speech, but rather a world in which people are not held responsible for what they say, which no sensible person would want.
We live in a world where Thomas Mair was riled up by anti-immigration rhetoric (and immense cruelty) so much that he murdered Labour MP Jo Cox in the street. A world where the President of the United States can openly paint all Mexicans as rapists and thieves, brag about sexually assaulting women, express anti-Black sentiment by referring to us as jobless and uneducated and still win an election. Leading to the rejuvenation of publicly palatable Nazism, highlighted by the Charlottesville riots. We live an breath amidst proof that the power of words has very discernible life and death consequences. This is why it is crucial that we do not allow supporters of Tommy Robinson and people like them to conflate “freedom of speech” and freedom from the confines of adult responsibility and consequence, for what people decide to say.