What is free speech?

Lynne McTaggart

The Charlie Hebdo killings have focused the mind on free speech – freedom of expression, to call it by its formal legal name – and also revealed how little we know about what it actually means, as witnessed by the comments on last week’s blog.

The Charlie Hebdo killings have focused the mind on free speech – freedom of expression, to call it by its formal legal name – and also revealed how little we know about what it actually means, as witnessed by the comments on last week’s blog.

Free speech has been in common law in Britain where I live for many years but was actually only enshrined into ‘official’ law in Article 10 of the European Commission on Human Rights, after which is was then incorporated into British law in the Human Rights Act of 1998.


Press freedoms

The law is mainly meant to protect the right of the press, which includes the broadcast, the spoken word, other written and digital media, as well as the rights of political opponents to criticize the political and corporate Establishment.


Free speech is supposed to enable us to avoid the tyranny of government or institutions by giving us the right to air our views without fear of reprisal. The organization Liberty, devoted to protecting human rights in the UK, quotes the late US President Theodore Roosevelt on this point: ‘Free speech, exercised both individually and through a free press, is a necessity in any country where people are themselves free.’


As someone with a background in investigative reporting, my job, as I see it, is essentially holding the Establishment’s tail to the fire. Consequently, what I write about is controversial.


I critique a medical system largely sponsored by highly profitable private industry that pays off many governments and that increasingly stands accused of an extraordinary abuse of power. I also write about cutting edge science that has not yet been accepted by the scientific establishment.


Small wonder that not everyone agrees with me.


Free speech does carry with it the right to disagree, even to voice views that offend someone who doesn’t agree with you. I, for instance, find some of what Charlie Hebdo did offensive and gratuitous. I’m not a big advocate of mocking individual religions, but the editors were completely within their right to make a statement about a religious institution.


Unfortunately, with the advent of the internet, that sacred freedom – to be free to critique a corrupt government or Establishment – has become confused, now that anyone with a bit of time on their hands can set up a blog or make a comment, secure in their own power and anonymity.


The once noble aim to give voice to dissenters has degenerated into a license to say whatever you feel like about anyone you feel like trashing.


Where’s the line?

People have wondered on these pages how far we are meant to go, when it comes to protecting free speech. Does that mean we need to tolerate abuse by trolls? If we delete them do we stop free speech?


The law is clear on this point. Article 10 qualifies this freedom by saying that the right of freedom of expression is qualified by such restrictions that are necessary ‘for the protection of the reputation and rights of others.’


That means you are not allowed to defame or injure other people’s reputations because you don’t like their hairdo or what they stand for. For instance, the right to free speech will protect ‘fair comment,’ but will not protect a person who tries to spread hateful lies against another.


That article is also backed up by libel law, which prevents people from saying things about other people that are untrue, with the burden of truth on the person allegedly committing the libel. The law also prohibits ‘hate speec
hes’ that incite violence.


As with all freedoms comes responsibility. What free speech doesn’t allow is for is license to say or do whatever you feel like. It does not give people the right to abuse each other, destroy their reputations, restrain their trade or incite others to act against them. In fact, restraint of trade is also illegal.


Being an advocate for free speech also doesn’t handcuff us into accepting anything anyone wants to throw at us. You are not obliged, for instance, to invite the people who seek to destroy you round for dinner. Or indeed to allow them a voice on your own community pages.


How we’re policing this blog

In this blog, we are happy to keep posts that offer a reasoned disagreement with the issue being discussed. However, we are deleting some of the known trolls who are part of a group that has in the past two years has:


  • incited others to destroy our reputation
  • taught others to interfere with our business’s weblinks and our search engine optimization
  • encouraged others to hide our magazines in stores
  • used innuendo, rather than fact, to undermine our reputation
  • reported blatant lies about our journal
  • staged phony letter writing campaigns in clear restraint of trade


We also police offensive language, comments that are completely off point or any other gratuitous attempts to undermine us. You all know who you are. Don’t bother coming back – we’ll always delete you. That’s not free speech. That’s just being a coward and a bully – and also having nothing better to do with yourself.

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Lynne McTaggart

Lynne McTaggart is an award-winning journalist and the author of seven books, including the worldwide international bestsellers The Power of Eight, The Field, The Intention Experiment and The Bond, all considered seminal books of the New Science and now translated into some 30 languages.

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