Is the Concept of Free Speech in Crisis?

Despite having a speech impairment, I had always made sure I had a voice one way or another, and indeed I have become quite outspoken, saying all the things others want to say but often can’t! I was always the one around the committee table prepared to say what everyone was thinking and take the consequences for what I said. Blogging for the Huffington Post has been the ultimate definition of having a voice, and I remind people it is a voice, not ‘the voice’ in terms of disability.

Since I have been writing for the Huff, I realised that the concept of free speech is no longer as respected at I believed it once was. As I wrote my first few articles, I accepted there would be people who disagreed with what I said but I have assumed they would comment in a constructive way. I was however not prepared for the strength of hostility I was met with, not just on Huff’s website but throughout the whole of cyberspace on blogs and social networks. Little of the responses had anything to do with what I had written but more to do with insulting my personhood because I had a different viewpoint to themselves based on a mythical version of myself. Is it really necessary to refer to me as Iain Duncan Smith’s Love child because I believe in the human potential of all disabled people?

I believe ‘free speech’ is not just the act of allowing someone to say what they believe, so long as it is in a manner that is not personally abusive, but also the way to have the active respected and challenged in a manner that is not abusive. My experience is that kind of free speech is going, if not gone, has trolling and other forms of cyber bullying has become the norm, especially in what is considered activism. To add insult to injury, anything general I said which people did not agree with was referred to as ‘hate speech’! Over the last six months I have been called everything under the sun and indeed over the sun, in public forums in a manner I still find shocking. It did take me a while to acclimatise to my new battleground, narrowly missing a nervous breakdown, and I am now able to mostly ignore the unprovoked spontaneous insults on Twitter, even when they persisted throughout Christmas.

I believe that the difficulties of free speech have changed. In the past the only people who had a big voice were those who worked in the news industry, who effectively controlled what the general public saw of the world to a large degree. It was a slow industry that was a monopoly of information and so if someone told an untruth about someone, it would likely to have a big impact, and take days, week or months to be corrected. Now news organisations are considered as a bundle of personalities with specific viewpoints and hang-ups, within a fast pace information system that now includes social networks. More importantly, traditional news organisations are competing against blogs, and other voices of individuals, who can now portray themselves to the world on their own terms. This means that untruths may have less impact and are more easily corrected or given less weight to.

I believe the new difficulties of free speech is cyber-bullying and specifically the anonymity of those who attack free speech with insults. I personally do not mind the insults, so long as I would very much like to know exactly who is insulting me so I can contextualise what their point is. With Twitter names like ‘Death By Tory’, who has the profile picture of an X-rayed skull, I have no idea who I am talking to and sometimes Twitter feels like an IRA Christmas Party. I feel that to have the right to free speech within the public domain like Twitter, you must be open about who you are to some degree even if that is you’re your name and hometown. Ideally I believe all social media accounts should consist of one real profile picture, even if it was not the one used as their current one.

In court cases, I have the right to face my accuser, and that principle should been extended to public free speech in general. I am not including whistle-blowers and those who report information to a third party for investigation and independent verification, but the purity of making a comment publicly. I believe this would further enshrine the nature of free speech for everyone, as well as reducing the often cowardly acts of cyber-bullying, and is the way forward for free speech.

from Simon Stevens