Scottish independence and freedom of expression

Tomorrow’s first core principle is freedom of expression. It is the foundation for all our reporting, from the people we interview, to the comments and debate that follows, and all points in between.

In the debate in Scotland over whether the nation should be a state independent and separate from the current United Kingdom, it has been proposed that a future country would have a written constitution. Similarly, the UK Conservative Party, currently in coalition government, has long vowed to pull out of the European Convention on Human Rights and instead offer their own British Bill of Rights.

The saltire

Expression should be written in stone.

Both these positions are rooted in a dissatisfaction with the current politics, playing to voting bases that are either unhappy with the UK, or with Europe. Both are attempts to offer very party political notions of what should be a “right” on the British Isles. Conservatives in the UK argue Europe’s concepts of rights are giving too many to the wrong people, such as criminals, and that only Britons know what real rights should belong to Britain. Nationalists in Scotland make the same point for a repatriation of sorts on to home soil, that only Scots can know what should really be protected as rights, while still part of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But neither talk about freedom of expression, which is ironic considering how much they make use of it, not only to assert their position, but to denounce those who counter notions of “British” or “Scottish”.

At a European level, the right to speak – and for our purposes, the right to report – comes 10th in the list. This is very different from the former British – and very enthusiastically Scottish – colonies of the United States and Canada. What starts as the fourth article of the US bill of rights becomes the third and then first amendment of the constitution. Canada’s charter of rights and freedoms puts speech at number one.

Debates over rights, when in the heat of political or election debates, tend to frame rights as either free stuff to which the people should be entitled, or actions which people may take or which the state may not take to protect rights. Expression is rarely considered. And when celebrities and politicians can so easily denounce the media for the actions of a few, and when bloggers can dismiss any views but their own, expression is the right which must be most protected.

Without the freedom of expression, there would be no exposure of reporting scandals, there would be no blogs that criticise anything that moves, there would be no ability to question and build a nation, whatever its borders might be. Expression, including the so-called desecration of a flag or the waving of a rival one, protects the ability to debate what a nation is, the nature of individual and societal identity, and the very foundation of what is right and wrong, including the definitions of “flag” and “desecration”.

Speech, particularly in an era of anonymised social media, allows the branding of almost any comment as “offensive”, therefore necessitating resignations, terminations of employment or political representations, etc. Speech can do all manner of things, including offend. But the automatic response is to silence the person entirely, and that is a dangerous trend.

Tomorrow’s 11th principle is promoting responsible debate and mediation – and none of that is possible without the expression of even the most abhorrent remarks. Those who profess being offended are frequently guilty of themselves “offending”, but social media and even TV debates, particularly during the Scottish independence referendum, is dominated by whomever can yell loudest. Those voices should have no more “right” to their expressions than any other citizen or reporter doing their job anywhere in the UK or beyond.

Racism, for example, can incite racist acts against others, and those acts and related speech, are widely criminalised in the western world. But jailing a racist or denouncing a political party’s racist policies alone doesn’t change the individual or reverse racism – education and understanding can do that, both only possible through expression.

There are many people who use free speech irresponsibly. Whenever a celebrity is investigated for any potential crime, social media becomes a lawyers’ paradise for libellous comments.

But there is no celebration of the right to free expression, and so the resulting responsibilities that draw on it can easily remain unknown. Without the first principle, Tomorrow’s subsequent 10 could not exist; those 10 honour the first through the duties prescribed as a news organisation.

 

James Madison, the fourth president of the United States and one of the founders of the nation, wrote the first amendment. The quotes from him most typically associated with freedom of speech are:

A popular government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a prologue to a farce or a tragedy; or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.1

But actually, a more useful treatise comes from the Federalist Papers. No 10, by James Madison, states:

Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency. …

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

People inherently disagree, as do states, stemming entirely from the diversity. What must be protected is the diversity of faculties, the expression of them through disagreements.

John Stuart Mill was the English born son of the Scottish philosopher James Mill and one of the most important writers on freedom of speech. In chapter two of On Liberty, he wrote:

If all mankind minus one were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind.2

When everyone has an opinion, it is easy to demand that all others be silenced because they are wrong. The historic defences of the right to the opinion in the first place have been forgotten.

Tomorrow would argue that freedom of expression must be protected as a first principle if or when Scotland separates or if or when the British government decides to pull out of the ECHR.

Tomorrow bases its domain name in Iceland and its server in the US, both nations which have shown more commitment to freedom of expression in the past decade than the UK or indeed Scotland. Our duty to protect the right to report comes before party political declarations and will remain as our first principle in whatever nation we report from or base ourselves in. Any reporter, artist or otherwise who works for Tomorrow can look to that assurance and protection, as can those who react to our work.

Scotland’s referendum will take place on September 18, the date of the first edition of the New York Times. Tomorrow invites all parties, whatever the result, to vow to make freedom of expression a priority across the British Isles. It is what will ensure and protect future debates, and help grow the “better” and “more just” society that all political parties profess to champion.

  1. http://www.firstamendmentcenter.org/hall-of-fame/james-madison
  2. http://www.bartleby.com/130/2.html

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We must tread a line between principles 1, 8 and 11 in particular when it comes to comments on our reporting. Everyone has a right to be heard, but we must protect some members of the public on occasion and promote RESPONSIBLE debate and mediation. That means some comments must be removed or edited.

For example, if a comment mentioned criminal allegations against an individual, this would be removed as it might identify innocent individuals or victims.

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Please apply this basic approach when considering a comment: would you make it to a parent or close friend? We encourage readers to discuss stories with friends, family or anyone and then return to make comments. Then you will be meeting principle 11 as well.

And remember, as a news editor once said, you only get five exclamation marks in life, so use them sparingly.