Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Political controversies and Freedom of Speech


Politicians have been saying the wrong thing, at the wrong time and to the wrong people for as long as there have been politicians. Recent controversies such as those surrounding Todd Akin, George Galloway, and Ken Maginnis have once again provided the public with great topics for debate and, it’s easily argued, that’s actually been of benefit to society. It is, after all, important to air issues and to know what our representatives really think about certain things.

Inevitably though, following some off-policy rant, a politician is usually criticised or disciplined by their party and that, also inevitably, is met with the ever so pitiful cry of ‘what about freedom of thought and freedom of speech’.  I’ll skip over the ‘freedom of thought’ part because I assume people really mean ‘freedom of speech’ but just haven’t grasped the difference.

The trouble with people who claim that X or Y should be entitled to freedom of speech is that in nearly every case, no one has restricted anyone’s freedom of speech – they have just restricted their ability to speak for others; namely, the political party they represent. That’s a crucial difference and one that is often overlooked in the argument.

Take Ken Maginnis. His views on Homosexuality – that it is a rung on the same ladder as Bestiality and that homosexual sex is a deviant act – are offensive to a great many people, but, as it stands, his words don’t technically constitute speech that incites hatred or violence and so remains legal speech.  He can say what he likes and when he likes so no one is has restricted his freedom of speech.

What his party leader has done (at least initially) was to tell Ken Maginnis that he couldn’t say those things while standing on a UUP platform. In essence – you have the right to say what you like (within the law) but you have no right to say it on behalf of the UUP and the UUP have no obligation to continue to provide a platform on which you can say what you like.

This isn’t unique to politics – it’s the same for any professional organisation, whether it be a major multi-national or a small local run shop – if you are making statements that are contrary to policy or can do damage to that organisation, it is only right that they can take action to stop that.

What’s really behind the freedom of speech argument is not ‘people should be free to say what they want’ it is ‘people should be free to say things I agree with’.