It was once said that “Freedom of
speech means freedom for those who you despise, and freedom to express the most
despicable views. It also means that the government cannot pick and choose
which expressions to authorise and which to prevent.” I was reminded of this
during a recent debate at the District Council on its revised safeguarding
The policy does an excellent job of
tackling the increasingly complex and developing landscape in relation to the
council’s safeguarding responsibilities towards vulnerable children and adults.
The well-publicised failings of councils such as Rotherham have highlighted how
easy it has become – especially when government has become so fragmented – for
appalling abuses to go undetected.
But within this draft was a very
curious recommendation with no obvious connection to safeguarding. It would
oblige local authorities to ensure “publicly-owned premises are not used to
disseminate extremist views”. Schools
are to be put under a similar obligation.
It’s easy to believe in freedom of
speech for those with whom we agree. A mark of a truly liberal society is one
that extends those same freedoms to those with whom we would profoundly disagree.
To challenge repugnant ideologies, they must be heard and tackled head on with
reasoned argument. Those with long memories will remember the Thatcher
government’s ban on broadcasting Sinn Fein representatives. It made this
country a laughing stock and strengthened worldwide support for the Republican
We should not take on those guilty
of illiberalism using their same tools of oppression. We should not seek to silence
those who oppose the right to freedom of speech.
The proposal is ill thought-out.
What is “extremism”? A lazy shortcut to describe those whose views fall outside
the “conventional”, but in no way threaten? I have in the past used public
premises to call for the renationalisation of the railways – a policy supported
by 70% of Britons. Our MP – now a government minister – branded this an “extreme”
left-wing proposal. Does that make me an extremist? Am I to be silenced?!
As our government hurtles headlong towards
mass surveillance (a policy from which even the US government now resile) and
abandoning the Human Rights Act with no clear idea of what is to replace it, we
should be careful of so easily giving up hard-won freedoms.