Remember When Speech Was Free? Me Neither…
Two incidents this week served to highlight the fact speech is no longer free, and hasn’t been for some time. They further illuminated the hypocricy of governments who, on the one hand, praise Egyptian, Yemeni, Jordanian and Syrian rioters, yet on the other hand permit no dissent against their own establishment.
The first instance concerns England. When citizens of London rioted, there were calls from the government to restrict access to instant messaging, and to prohibit encrypted messaging, most notably Blackberry Messenger (BBM). Imagine a government calling for the outlawing of pen and paper, on the grounds that these may be used to convey messages the government does not approve of. Or that all pen and paper communication must be accessible to government watchers. The difference is one of techonology, not principle.
At the same time, a 21 year old who posted comments to Facebook encouraging violence in Norwich was sentenced to four years in prison, despite no violence occuring as a result of his postings. A victim without a crime.
Meanwhile, in the United States, the government authority which controls the Bay Area Rapid Transit systems (BART) blocked all cell phone communications in fear that protests might occur on the subway line, following events surrounding the killing of civilians by BART authorities.
Imagine if the characters in the story were changed: “Syrian man jailed for four years for encouraging resistance”; “Egyptian government disables communication systems for rebels”. If you’re busy, as you read this, trying to justify why the UK and the US should be given a pass for supressing free speech while other regimes shouldn’t, you’re clearly not in favor of free speech to begin with.
To reiterate: in both cases, no violence occured. Free speech was suppressed where such speech displeased the government, full stop. And both instances prove that “free speech” is a convenient slogan where it suits those in power, but has no real substantive meaning, other than to posit that citizens are free to speak on any topic they wish, provided government considers such topic “acceptable”.
Free speech is a binary proposition: either you have it or you don’t. It’s a little like being a little bit pregnant. The oft-cited (if incorrect) argument that “reasonable limits” apply to free speech (“One is not permitted to yell ‘Fire’ in a theatre”) serve as an effective argument against the principle of free speech in its entirety. But such arguments imply freedom is limited to those freedoms government is willing to concede, situationally. That is not, in any case, freedom. It is, instead, a prison of simply different dimensions.