tagReviews & EssaysFree Speech: The Acid Test

Free Speech: The Acid Test


Copyright Oggbashan May 2005

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

If you are a member of an organisation, can you:

A. Call the Chairman of the Board a stupid prat?

B. Suggest that the General Manager is incompetent and a wanker?

C. Describe the employees as talentless pricks who could be outperformed by three-toed sloths?

Could you make such statements live to a TV camera? You might change your mind and describe them ten minutes later as respectively inspired, the greatest thing since sliced bread, and as living gods – but you can safely say any of those things - if you are a member of a UK amateur football club.

In other organisations such freedom of expression might be unwise.

Free speech is the acid test of the strength and democracy of an organisation.

If you work for a company, does that company have a suggestion box? Could you put defamatory statements about your managers into that box and still remain an employee? If you can, you are working for a good employer.

If you belong to a club, can you criticise the management committee and still remain a member? If you can't, your club is undemocratic. If you can, you might end up on the committee helping to correct what you have criticised. There are responsibilities with free speech. It is easy to retort 'If you think you can do better, come and try'. Perhaps you can.

If a government allows free speech, which includes an uncensored media, then it should be regarded as a legitimate government, no matter what form it takes.

The freedom to openly criticise the government or your bosses is a powerful weapon that has cost lives to retain and is still costing lives to obtain. That freedom has led recently to changes of government in Eastern Europe when the people took to the streets to protest about unfair and illegal actions by their rulers.

The USSR's tanks eventually crushed the 1956 Prague Spring in Hungary. At that time, had the USSR been vulnerable to free speech then the Hungarian revolution would have happened a generation before Hungary actually became a free country able to choose democracy.

The introduction of Perestroika in the USSR which allowed people to question the actions of their government was the first major step on the route to the break-up of the USSR into separate countries feeling their way gradually to the democratic freedoms common in Western Europe.

Freedom of speech was so powerful that the East Germans had to build the Berlin Wall, not to keep invaders out, but to keep their own citizens in. President Kennedy's 'Ich bin ein Berliner' speech frightened the East German authorities into oppressing their citizens more than they already had.

Even some dictators have felt it necessary to allow the appearance of free speech even if they cannot allow the reality. Opposition to the government in newspapers in some African states is officially permitted. It is punished by deniable raids on the printing works, the editorial offices, beatings and even killings of reporters by so-called criminal gangs that everyone knows are supported by the government. When those in power can hold up their hands in apparent horror and claim that attacks on free media are nothing to do with them, then they can still claim legitimacy even if their power depends on the AK47 and the machete to silence their critics.

The success of free speech is not that of a few individuals, although like Charter 77 a few can start the process, but by mobilising large numbers of the population to challenge and criticise the legitimacy of the government. The fear of the international media and the response from the rest of the world has an impact far beyond the country's borders. The massacre of students demonstrating in Peking is less likely now than it was then. It is almost impossible to stop pictures and videos of an event from being posted on the Internet in graphic detail contradicting official accounts of 'a few dissidents' or 'a few fundamentalist Muslim terrorists' attacking the country's institutions.

If the country's leaders are impervious to the complaints of their citizens, the countries that back those leaders, or work with those leaders, are not immune to the effects of free speech. The days when Western Democracies could unreservedly back dictators that oppress their people are ending. Free speech and a free media are making such policies unpopular and ultimately barred to any government that seeks re-election.

Free speech is the tool that extends freedom to the places where other freedoms cannot yet reach. It is still the acid test to show whether a people are really free.

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