Protecting the right to free speech remains vital

There is always cause and effect.

Throw a stone into a still lake, and watch the ripples extend outwards. In the conditions created during the peak of Covid-19, the quiet of lockdown could have fooled us into thinking all was calm, yet our societal lake was not still. Currents were moving beneath the surface. No one has foresight as to how any particular event will land, but it is clear that the brutal death of George Floyd has seen a tidal wave effect of action and reaction, including protests, violence, statues toppled, memorials vandalised, offence taken and given across many social media platforms, accusations and counter-claims.

When we disagree on any issue, the opportunity for dialogue can improve our understanding of not only the other viewpoint, but importantly the sharpening and sometimes refocusing our own arguments. Protecting the right to free speech remains vital, recognising that there are always consequences for every word we use, in verbal conversation and written down, especially where characters are limited.

There are social consequences for saying the wrong thing with friends or publicly advocating a highly contentious viewpoint. No one is protected from the fallout of the words we use and those of us in public life, while often having a full lexicon at our disposal to delve into, also know that there is a responsibility to choose what delights we offer in oratory and the need to take care.

Some also take the opportunity of choosing words to inflame. Words will always be powerful.

However, in order for dialogue, debate and the challenging of ideas to work properly, one side actively working to suppress a viewpoint will also have its own cause and effect. Dialogue doesn’t work in an echo-chamber, and we are increasingly seeing silos of thought on all social media platforms.

Lifetime bans of contentious users on Twitter have come into force over the last week, which sparked a surge where many decided to join an app called Parler.

Simply by joining, not on the basis of anything we said, many of us were branded as a racist, fascist and much worse because we dared to join a site that actively promotes free speech. It has been inhabited up until recently by many Americans who have a different political centre.

We were in the wrong neighbourhood according to the Twitterati, who had potentially failed to notice the state of their own sitting room.

I have every intention of staying on all social media platforms and listening to what others are saying while I will eagerly defend my right to be offended and challenged.

Sometimes I think we can forget that within free speech, we also have the right to remain silent. Sometimes it expresses more than a few hastily dashed off words in a tweet, but only if you have always been listening.

Angela Richardson, Conservative MP for Guildford and Vice-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Australia and New Zealand

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