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Liberals have allowed the Right to own free speech

Why is that? Because they are the groups and individuals that most often butt up against the soft and hard limits of free speech. It is UKIP supporters that are most often sneered at; it is the Pegida marchers who are dismissed as racists with hatred in their hearts. This is not to agree with their views, simply to acknowledge it is they who practically exercise freedom of expression, who feel most acutely its legal and social edges, and who subsequently come to value and fight for it. Liberals, by contrast, know what it means in theory: but without regular exercise, they have forgotten the practice.

“Fear has paralysed the police… if the police can take away my freedom, they can do it to you.” That’s Tommy Robinson, former leader of the English Defence League. "We must uncap our pens; we must speak words of truth. We are facing a determined enemy who is striving through all means to destroy the West and snuff out our traditions of free thought, free speech, and freedom of religion... we must not let the violent fanatics dictate what we draw, what we say, and what we read. We must rebel against their suffocating rules and thuggish demands at every turn.” That’s Geert Wilders leader of the PVV.

Take UK political parties’ webpages. On its front page, UKIP lists a handful of principles it believe in. One is “free speech and democracy”. It reads: “No to Political Correctness – it stifles free speech.” What simplicity!

Now take a look at Labour, where, after some digging, you'll find them restricted to repealing “The Tories Gagging Bill” because it “hits charities and campaigners hard, limiting their right to fight for important causes, while allowing professional lobbyists to escape scrutiny. And it has left expert organisations who have a vital contribution to make to public debate unsure about whether they are allowed to speak out. Governments should not be afraid of criticism or lively debate.”

Nor do the Tories say anything much, majoring instead on benefit cuts, EU referendum, immigration and the deficit.

For the Lib Dems, it’s “freedom and equality”. Nothing on free expression: rather Lib Dem achievements on equal marriage, ID cards, and the DNA database.

My point is not to say who is the more trustworthy, but rather who appears most willing to make free expression a point of principle. And that’s the great danger. According to research by the think-tank Counterpoint, many populist leaders use freedom of expression as a “frame”, as a useful way of demonising enemies and presenting themselves as courageous and outspoken, even if they don’t really believe it – and carrying with it policies and ideas that are really do not defend free expression at all; for example rank and aggressive xenophobia.

That’s why liberals need to wrestle back free expression. To do that means viewing the idea as far more than an abstract principle; but rather as something that is lived, demanding and defending free expression in principle as well as practice: welcoming to UKIP or Pegida or Islamists or whoever. To encourage their involvement in debate, to listening to them seriously without sneering even while disagreeing with them fervently. To create a society where people feel more than technically free to express their view, but where those views are actively sought. None of this means giving in to hate or bigotry or xenophobia either. Quite the reverse in fact. Free expression allows us to sharpen and re-inforce our views. In the very best lines of On Liberty, Mill reminds us why censorship works for no-one: “If a forbidden opinion is true, we lose the opportunity to learn of its truth. If a forbidden opinion is false, we lose the opportunity to remind ourselves why it is false.” So what are we afraid of?

Jamie Bartlett is Director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media, which is a collaboration between Demos and the University of Sussex. The Centre combines computer and social sciences for policy research. Jamie’s work focuses on the ways in which social media and modern communications and technology are changing political and social movements, with a special emphasis on terrorism and radical politics. Jamie is author of The Dark Net, (William Heinemann, 2013), and Radicals (Penguin, 2017)

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