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Why Freedom of Speech Continues to Fuel the Fire

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“I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”

Voltaire, French Enlightenment Writer, 1694-1778.

It is widely known that every person is entitled to their own opinion and their right to express it. However, this concept is not yet respected enough for it to function seamlessly. It seems to act as if it were the carton of petrol thrown on the fire. In the last week, it is fair to say that the world has been caught up in a furious media storm surrounding the Royal Interview hosted by Oprah Winfrey. Media headlines have fired the shots back and forth between those who defend the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, and those who support the rest of the Royal family. Buckingham Palace have announced in their recent statement, that they would deal with the serious accusations of racism within the institution in a private manner. However, understandably, to a large extent the press and the rest of the public feel they are considerably involved in the debate at this point, and for some, it may be difficult to push their sentiments aside and take a step back from the frontline.

Indeed, this was the case for the anchor of Good Morning Britain, Piers Morgan. Having openly built himself a record of longstanding disdain for Meghan Markle; when challenged on it, he made the pivotal and sudden decision to leave GMB all-together. In a tweet following the breaking news, he brings to the table the reminder that Freedom of Speech is an integral part of our society. He echoed Churchill’s words, “some people’s idea of free speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage”. Meghan herself claims in the interview that she was “silenced” by the palace, despite experiencing serious mental health issues. But underneath all of this, there is a great importance to distinguish between freedom of speech, and the danger of revealing statements and accusations which have little evidential standing. For example, in the trial following the insurrection of the Capitol by Trump supporters, Trump’s lawyers argued that he was protected under the argument of free speech. However, where Trump saw his entitlement as free speech, the majority saw it as an incitement to violence. The complication is exacerbated by the need to balance freedom of speech against the plethora of other rights such as public safety. 

The question of free speech has always added a dimension of fragility to social debates, and often leads to tragic violence. It is legally protected under the Human Rights Act 1999, article 10, where political, artistic, and commercial expression are legitimate and entitled rights under human rights law. But even within the black and white of the law, free speech lies under the shade of subjectivity. Even within the Human Rights Act, there are limitations to the circumstances where free speech can be defended. The lines which surround freedom of speech are constantly blurred, particularly under the heat of public debate and scrutiny. Under a legal microscope, the matter is grey, and boils down to a wholly subjective nature. Simultaneously, we have countries who pride themselves on the presence of free speech within their constitutions, and in contrast, we have large powers such as Russia, where controversial figures such as Navalny have been censored, even imprisoned. There has been considerable concern over the protests of anti-vaccine protestors, who argue that society has suffocated under the presence of a pseudo-pandemic.

Where does our responsibility lie to define and uphold the principles of free speech? Is it realistic to aspire to an international standard of free speech?

Freedom of Speech will continue to fuel political fires for years to come, but ultimately it falls under the responsibility of world leaders, and indeed ourselves to question and challenge the statements we hear in the whirlwind of media debate. Remembering Voltaire’s words, “I may not agree with what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.

Is it the responsibility of political leaders to protect free speech?

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