When I first arrived at the CFJ, I had the pleasure of meeting Tim Luckhurst, the former Head of Centre. He told me about his career in journalism, in Washington, Iraq, Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland. Just before the two-hour entrance exam, he spoke about the importance of free speech and democracy, and declared “I will defend to the death your right to offend me”. These words or similar ones, are often accredited to Voltaire, but may in fact have originated in the works of Evelyn Robinson-Hall. This blog post explores free speech, freedom of speech and the freedom of expression (these three terms are used differently in various contexts and may have different legal implications but to me refer to the same concept) in relation to a post on the UKC Chinese Society facebook page, and the relationship between the free press, governments, and people expressing their right to free speech.
Back in November last year, the UKC Chinese Society posted a message bemoaning an event organised by Kent Union and the International Students Network.
The event was advertised as a meeting in solidarity with the people whose lives had been affected by the ongoing situation in Hong Kong, including the students who could no longer attend university due to events there. It was the opinion of the Chinese Society, that the event was in fact a one-sided attack on the Hong Kong Police and in support of the student demonstrators. They cited malicious editing of videos of the protests, which focussed on police brutality and ignored violence by protestors, and a radical presenter, who they identified as Chair of the Hong Kong Society.
They said that “The Chinese Students and Scholars Association had an urgent meeting right after their activity and sent a letter of protest to the Kent Student Union about revealing the purpose of their activity and the behaviour of abusing Freedom of Speech”.
I have seen videos of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, which showed protestors firing large home-made catapults, throwing petrol bombs, and pointing lasers at police. They also showed police brutality. One video shows a group of people being attacked aboard a train by riot police, without any apparent provocation. I don’t know if they were protestors or just innocent bystanders.
One thing I am sure of, is that governments have a huge array of powers which they can levy against their citizens, including power over life and death. Politicians in powerful countries have this power over citizens and leaders of other nations too, as recent events have highlighted. As a counter-balance to the powers of the state in this country, we have a free press, human rights relating to principles such as habeas corpus, and the right to express our opinions with certain prohibitions and requirements. These are codified in law, and prevalent in our notions of democracy. Just to be clear, ‘freedom of speech’ is a term from the First Amendment of the US Constitution, and in the UK we do not have the same rights.
These freedoms are curtailed for various reasons, including a ban on hate speech, and certain organisations being listed on a no-platform list so that they are not able to speak at university events. Authorities have tried to suppress these freedoms to suit their own purposes. Take for example, the recent categorization of Extinction Rebellion as terrorists by British police. Anti-terror laws have served to reduce the rights of the individual in UK law. But we remain a society which values fairness and liberty, even though our governments do not always support these ideals.
The free press act as a watch dog, to protect the people from all manner of threats, including those posed by our own government. We have a right and a duty to criticise and publicise, and it is this activity which keeps them in check. The damage potential of an unfavourable story in the mainstream press, is enough to bring down individuals, groups, and even regimes. This is so important because as citizens we can turn to the press for help, and have few other options when we are oppressed or misled by our own government.
Every violent act the state commits against its own people is backed up by the rule of law. Every act of violence against the state’s agents is a criminal act, and one which will likely be severely punished. The police have riot armour, batons, tasers, water cannons, rubber bullets, and tear gas, not to mention guns. The protestors have umbrellas, gas masks, laser pens, home-made catapults, and Molotov cocktails. It is an uneven battle, and if the state claims moral superiority, this should be demonstrated by the behaviour of their agents.
Where government agents act in a way which is seen as inhumane or unreasonable the press can hold them to account. I get the feeling from reading the statement by the UKC Chinese Society, that their ideas about freedom of speech are not the same as my own. It is apparent that they do not approve of anti-government sentiment, and are quick to defend the actions of the authorities. The brutal suppression of student protestors as I see it, is to them “highly restrained”.
I have nothing against the Chinese Society, but on the issue of free speech we are on different planets. I have always wanted to visit China, but the reputation the regime (current and past) has for absolute social control and unbridled oppression is perturbing. I signed up to the Chinese Society in September, but received no communications from them. I communicated with the society again after hearing about the event which caused them so much distress. They did not respond. I wonder what they think of British society, and whether they understand what we mean by freedom of speech.
Of course, that depends on who you talk to. For me it is the freedom to express your opinions, whether they are critical of, or offensive to, the government or anybody else. Accepting difference is part of living together. I don’t think hate speech should be allowed. Attacking people for their race, religion, or gender is abhorrent. But sometimes people are simply offended by what another person says. If we offend someone, we might alienate them, or incur their anger or disapproval. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t say what we think. Sometimes the things that we need to say might offend the majority, and we may even be persecuted by our own government for saying them. But it is the right to say those things, and our ability to do so, which enables and perpetuates our freedom.