The Politics of: Free Speech

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Disclaimer: The views expressed within this article are entirely the author’s own and are not attributable to Wessex Scene as a whole.

In light of the controversy surrounding Politics professor Justin Murphy’s tweets, there have been responses that can be put broadly into two categories.

The first response classifies his tweets as discriminatory and hate speech: he classifies left-wing people and humanities students as ‘mentally ill’, compares abortion to necrophilia and, when challenged by a student for allegedly ableist views on Twitter,  implies that there’s nothing wrong with ‘calling retards retards’.

However, the other camp (which includes the unapologetic professor himself) claim that Murphy is being treated unfairly: he is, after all, merely exercising his right to freedom of expression under Article 1o of the European Convention of Human Rights; something that we are still abiding by as of now despite our upcoming exit from the EU.

Many critics of the investigation Murphy is now facing have also claimed that this is a further example of the ‘overly PC’ and ‘snowflake’ culture university has become, as opposed to its intended culture of intellectual development, discussion and freedom of expression. But what does freedom of expression actually mean? Where is the line drawn? Here, I will explore that boundary and what free speech actually means.

In the UK, freedom of expression is considered to be a ‘negative right’. As a negative right, others are obliged under common law to not interfere with that right, meaning that others should not in theory censor, limit or influence your freedom of speech. For the defenders of Murphy and perhaps Murphy himself, this is where the rules of freedom of expression end. They feel that because freedom of speech is a ‘negative right’, the University’s alleged investigation into Murphy is interference and, in turn, violating that right.

But, at least to me, they’re wrong. You can’t use discriminatory language without consequence by passing it off as ‘free speech’; because the two are very different things. You may remember an article earlier this year which argued that free speech isn’t the same as hate speech, and to me, that is a distinction which is still completely overlooked.

The article explained how hate speech in various forms was actually illegal, with the 1986 Public Order Act and its various amendments in 2006 and 2008 banning abusive language about vulnerable and minority groups. The Malicious Communications Act (1988) and the Communications Act (2003); extend this prohibition of hate speech to online platforms. At this point, I’d like to remind you that Mr Murphy used Twitter to express his discriminatory rhetoric.

But do these laws on hate speech in any way violate or prohibit your right to free speech? No. The purpose of these laws is to protect certain groups from being targeted by verbal attacks, just as the law protects them from physical ones. You can complain about how Murphy is being violated, but what about the people with disabilities and mental health issues who felt violated by his words?

The University said that they’re taking action because they pride themselves on ‘tolerance, collegiality and inclusivity’: characteristics that are consistent with one’s right to freedom of expression. Laws on freedom of speech prevent censorship and allow you to express yourself without a fear of consequence: these laws are grounded in a respect for you, and all we ask is that this respect goes both ways.

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Wessex Scene's friendly neighbourhood Opinion Editor with a love of memes, food and complaining. Also News Editor at the Soton Tab and occasional contributor to The Daily Touch.

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