Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states optimistically: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The thirty articles of the UDHR are unnecessarily prolix: taken together they could easily be replaced without loss of scope or meaning by one Grand Implied Principle (GIP): That everyone has the right to a fully maintained refrigerator. The merit of this substitution can readily be seen in its economy and amenability to measurement.
In reality, free speech is the most recognizable ‘value’ that the West has never had. Elizabeth I’s Mr. Secretary Walsingham had folk put down for the crime of being overheard, and in our contemporary reign of nannying disapprobation, it’s impossible to know what’s sayable and what’s not, both legally and socially.
Free speech was a harmless indulgence — a sort of fraudulent introductory offer — when almost nobody could hear it; but with the world now wired for sound, it becomes a threat to the sustainable development of official truth. Detecting and punishing free speech is now a very simple matter. Anyone with a livelihood to defend can see it wrecked as much for a mere quip or jibe, made privately or publicly, as for the taking of a serious philosophical position. Each fragment of free speech contains the whole: that is its extreme vulnerability.
Speaking freely, airing one’s opinions publicly without personal risk and in the hope of engaging in useful debate, has over the last several decades passed from being a presumed right to an act of civil disobedience. Our Western nabobs of moral vanity, the neoliberal press, have lasciviously exercised their front-line guardianship (no pun, gentle readers) of received opinion. The evil of untrammelled virtue has enjoyed free play, giving rise to the Great Society of group-think and social signalling.
The pirate website, Spiked-Online, has written the book on free speech, its defence, and the pedigree of its enemies: there is no need to rehearse this here. Spiked’s editor, Brendan O’Neill, is a hard-headed and highly articulate defender of fundamental liberties on various platforms including the Oxford Union and British parliamentary committees. The Europeans is in almost perfect accord with O’Neill’s theses on free speech, governmental and judicial activism, education, feminism, multiculturalism, gay marriage, and social engineering generally. The only substantial exception is Spiked’s long-time support for open borders, from which one now senses a partial and reluctant retreat as the concept is tested to destruction in Europe and Turkey, as indeed elsewhere.
Has free speech ever been much more than just a slippery concept, destined to be forever haggled over by the philosophically challenged? Simply agreeing that free speech gives out where incitement begins, is alas of no use: rotate the framework just a little, and incitement now shows another aspect — the mere giving of offence. Concept-creep is the tool of first resort for social engineers everywhere. As a practical matter, one could say that free speech occupies the anodyne space not yet taken from it by those with legally or socially enforceable interests. As O’Neill says, the only way to protect free speech is to exercise it. In other words, free speech can be maintained and extended only on a blow-by-blow basis — by keeping up the pressure, holding the line.
America’s famous First Amendment, in its guarantee of free speech, is largely neutered by the baying of public opinion-makers. Article 19 of the UDHR, on the other hand, is merely ridiculous.