Free Speech, Idiocy and the Challenge of Citizenship



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24 June 2013
Free Speech, Idiocy and the Challenge of Citizenship
Peter Bradley
Almost 150 years after it was established, Speakers’ Corner - that hallowed, almost mythical beacon of freedom - remains a powerful inspiration to the millions all over the world who are still struggling for the rights to free expression and public assembly which we in Britain have enjoyed for generations.
How rare and precious are those freedoms. Consider in just how many countries it would be impossible or certainly inadvisable for citizens to gather together as we have today. Amnesty International’s latest annual reporti identifies no fewer than 91 countries, lamentably including members of the European Union and the British Commonwealth, in which freedom of expression is somehow restricted or altogether suppressed.
Or imagine that the person sitting next to you whom you do not know – or perhaps you think you do – may be there expressly to report to some higher authority on what was said and who heard it. As Edward Snowden has recently reminded us, state surveillance did not go out of fashion with the Stasi.
I don’t want to sow suspicion or undermine hitherto beautiful relationships – in fact my aim is precisely the opposite. But I do want to make the case that the disillusion which so many Britons evidently feel about our democratic way of life arises not so much from an erosion of our liberties by a political elite as from our own forgetfulness of why, how and with what difficulty those rights were won and from our failure to appreciate their value to us now.
My argument, which is based on twenty years in frontline politics and the last seven as the director of Speakers’ Corner Trustii, a charity which promotes free expression, public debate and active citizenship, is that association between citizens and the free, face-to-face exchange of ideas, information and opinions – with each other as well as with the decision-takers among them – is a key not just to rebuilding trust and participation in our democracy but also to creating a stronger and indeed a happier society.
First, I believe, we must recover our understanding of and respect for our freedoms and for the world of ideas which shaped and continues to shape them.
But we need to go further: rights must not just be learned and appreciated; they must be expressed. In my view, a true state of democracy does not exist simply because the rights of citizens are guaranteed by a constitution or protected by law. Rights are like muscles: if they are not exercised, they become weak and ineffectual. Just as the body grows strong and healthy through the regular exercise of its muscles, so the democratic society is strengthened and renewed through the constant and vigorous exercise of its freedoms.
In this lecture I want to argue that if we are to revive our flagging democracy, we must reactivate our sense of citizenship and first of all reinvigorate our right to free expression.

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