A joke was recently made by Stephen Fry, in his capacity as host of the BAFTA awards. The response on social media illustrates how people, millennials in particular, are increasingly seeing free speech as a privilege. It made fun at the expense of an award winning woman’s appearance. Later he found himself defending the joke against a barrage of critical opinions on Twitter. The woman, Fry explained, was a friend who was in on the joke. That would be all well and good had Fry not known the joke was being broadcast out of context to a national audience. As a “national treasure”, Fry has a louder voice than most people and with that comes a degree of responsibility. The joke might indeed have been intended as a bit of banter between friends. What was actually broadcast was a reinforcement of a negative stereotype. Fry invoked his right to free speech. Does this absolve him of blame for broadcasting an offensive joke? Rather than admit responsibility, he deleted his Twitter account.
Newspaper journalists spend years honing their craft and paying their dues. Even the most naturally gifted writer must prove themselves many times over before their first professional article sees print. Journalists have to constantly seek out inspiration, keep up to date with current events and stay abreast of popular opinion. When it comes to pitch their article, the journalist must do battle with their natural enemy: the editor. In these ways and more, newspaper journalists fight to earn the privilege of free speech.
Compare and contrast all that with the content produced by any old random bigot capable of setting up a Twitter account. These are the kinds of people whose contribution to political discourse never rises above the level of “David Cameron is a [insert four letter word here].” There are exceptions, of course; people do produce content of journalistic merit via social media. These people are the cream of the crop. This distinct minority represents those who have earned for themselves the privilege of free speech. It is justifiable to silence a bigot who has failed to substantiate his arguments or engage constructively with the debate. This is not the same as silencing them because you disagree with them. If they have failed to prove themselves responsible enough to be given free speech, then they do not deserve it.
Free speech is not a right but is, rather, a privilege that we afford each other by virtue of being responsible members of society. Germaine Greer abused that privilege by speaking out of ignorance on the subject of Trans rights. Donald Trump abused that privilege by advancing arguments which are demonstrably false. Peter Tatchell abused that privilege by allowing himself to become painfully out of touch. If people repeatedly abuse a privilege then it is only right that we as a society should strip them of it. Fight to earn for yourself the privilege of free speech; pitching an article to The Gryphon would be a good start…
Image courtesy of Rex