In both the United Kingdom and the United States, the principle of free speech—the right to express opinions without censorship or restraint—has long been a cornerstone of democracy.
However, the past decade has witnessed a significant decline in this fundamental right.
While some might argue that these changes are necessary for protecting individuals from hate speech and misinformation, others rightly worry that they signify an erosion of democratic values.
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Shrinking Freedom in the United Kingdom
Online Harms White Paper:
Introduced in April 2019, the Online Harms White Paper outlined the UK government’s plan to make the UK “the safest place in the world to be online.”
The proposal recommends establishing a new independent regulator for social media sites, platforms, and other online services.
Companies would be legally required to take action against a defined set of online harms, ranging from illegal activity and content to behaviors that are harmful but not necessarily illegal.
While protecting users, particularly children, from online harm is paramount, critics argue that the White Paper’s language is vague and extremely suppressive.
For example, one provision addresses “disinformation” and “fake news” without providing a clear definition for these terms, leading to worries that it could be manipulated to curtail free speech.
The 2015 Counter-Terrorism and Security Act is another significant piece of legislation.
Under the Act, public bodies have the legal duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, a policy known as the Prevent duty.
While it is undoubtedly vital to protect national security, this law’s implementation has raised concerns about its impact on free speech, particularly within educational institutions.
There have been numerous instances where schools and universities have been accused of overzealous application of this duty, thereby inhibiting lawful discussion and debate.
For instance, in 2015, a postgraduate student at the University of Reading was reported to the university’s security team for reading an academic textbook on terrorism for his course in the library, highlighting the potential for the Prevent duty to limit academic freedom.
Police & Courts:
There have been several high-profile instances in the UK where the police or courts have been accused of curtailing free speech. One example that sparked significant debate concerns the case of Mark Meechan, more commonly known by his YouTube alias, Count Dankula.
In 2018, Meechan was convicted by a Scottish court of being “grossly offensive,” a violation of the Communications Act 2003, for a video he posted on YouTube.
In the video, he trained his girlfriend’s pug to raise its paw in response to phrases such as “Sieg Heil” and “gas the Jews.”
Meechan claimed the video was a joke intended to annoy his girlfriend, but the court questionably found the content went beyond the boundaries of free speech and could incite hatred.
The case sparked significant controversy and debate.
Critics of the court’s decision argued that, while the video might have been offensive to some, Meechan’s right to freedom of speech should have protected his ability to make the video without facing legal consequences.
Supporters of the decision, however, argued that the potential for the video to incite anti-Semitic hatred meant it was appropriate for the court to take action.
This case serves as a reminder of the tension between the right to free speech and the responsibility to prevent hate speech that exists in many democracies today.
It also highlights the ongoing frightening debates about how to regulate speech in an increasingly digital world, where content can quickly reach a global audience.
British libel laws have a long history of being exploited to stifle free speech. In the UK, the burden of proof traditionally falls on the defendant, meaning that they are guilty until proven innocent.
This can lead to a ‘chilling effect’, where people are deterred from speaking out due to the risk of costly legal battles.
A notable example is Dr. Peter Wilmshurst, a British cardiologist who was sued for libel by medical device company NMT Medical in 2007.
Wilmshurst had publicly raised concerns about the efficacy and safety of one of the company’s heart devices.
The case, which lasted for several years and nearly bankrupted Wilmshurst, highlighted the potential for British libel laws to inhibit open scientific discussion and criticism that is in the public interest.
While there have been reforms to UK libel laws in the last decade, including the Defamation Act 2013, concerns remain that these laws can still be used to suppress free speech.
Encroaching Constraints in the United States
University Campus Culture:
The culture surrounding freedom of speech on American university campuses has been a significant topic of discussion. In the name of creating safe spaces and limiting hate speech, universities have implemented policies and actions that some argue suppress free speech.
The dis-invitation of controversial speakers has become a common phenomenon.
A high-profile case occurred in 2017 at the University of California, Berkeley. The university invited Milo Yiannopoulos, a right-wing commentator, to speak, but violent protests and safety concerns led to the event’s cancellation.
This incident sparked a nationwide debate about the potential suppression of free speech in academic institutions, as well as the consequences of allowing—or disallowing—controversial figures to speak.
Tech Giant Censorship:
The role of major tech companies in regulating speech on their platforms has been a contentious issue.
While private companies are not subject to the First Amendment, their significant influence over public discourse means their policies can have substantial effects on free speech.
This issue became particularly prominent when Twitter and Facebook banned former President Donald Trump in 2021 following the Capitol riots, citing concerns about the incitement of violence.
While many on the left applauded the decision as a necessary measure to prevent the spread of misinformation and violence, others rightly argued it set a concerning precedent for the power tech companies wield over free speech.
A controversial legislative movement across the U.S. involves laws against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The BDS movement is a global campaign promoting various forms of boycott against Israel until it meets what the campaign describes as Israel’s obligations under international law.
More than half of U.S. states have adopted laws or executive orders that restrict or penalize participation in this boycott.
For example, in 2017, Texas passed an anti-BDS law that required contractors to certify that they do not, and will not, boycott Israel. The law faced immediate criticism and legal challenges.
In 2019, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) helped a Texas freelance speech pathologist sue the state after she lost her job for refusing to sign such a certification. She claimed the law violated her First Amendment rights.
Opponents of these anti-BDS laws argue they infringe on free speech rights by penalizing individuals or companies choosing to boycott for political reasons, which is a constitutionally protected activity.
Supporters contend that they protect against discrimination and anti-Semitism, even though Israel is a country and not a religion.
These cases illustrate the ongoing tensions and debates surrounding the limitations on free speech, particularly when political and international issues are concerned.
As this scenario shows, the line between upholding democratic values and protecting against perceived harmful conduct can be thin and contentious.
The balance between free speech and societal protection is a fine one.
The decline in free speech in the UK and USA over the past decade is a topic that should be addressed with concern and caution.
It’s crucial for democratic societies to have an open and ongoing debate about the boundaries of free speech and the responsibility of both individuals and institutions to uphold this fundamental right while ensuring a safe and respectful environment.