The big chill: freedom of expression, self-censorship, and the limits of speech

January 12, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

Last week was not a good one for freedom of speech.

The week began with the release of a survey conducted by the PEN American Center focusing on the effect that mass government surveillance has had on writers around the world. Titled Global Chilling: The Impact of Mass Surveillance on International Writers, and conducted between August 28 and October 15, 2014, the survey found that writers from around the globe have engaged in a program of self-censorship as a result, in part, of revelations by former U.S. national security contractor Edward Snowden regarding the extent to which the American government has been spying on its own citizens in the wake of 9/11.

Consisting of data from 772 respondents – writers, editors, translators, publishers, journalists, and others – from fifty countries, the PEN survey found that “[l]evels of concern about government surveillance in democratic countries are now nearly as high as in non-democratic states with long legacies of pervasive state surveillance,” and that “levels of self-censorship reported by writers living in liberal democratic countries … match, or even exceed, levels reported by U.S. writers.” In the so-called “Five Eyes” countries – America and those that actively share intelligence with U.S. authorities (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) – fully eighty-four percent of respondents claim to be at least somewhat worried about government surveillance in their own countries. Forty percent of respondents from Five Eyes countries and twenty-eight percent of those from Western Europe admitted avoiding certain topics in their writing or speech as a result.

This is significant because, as the report points out, writers are like the canary in the coalmine where democratic freedoms are concerned. “Because freedom of expression is so central to writers’ craft, they may be considered particularly sensitive to encroachments on their rights to communicate, obtain, and impart information and voice their ideas and opinions. But the freedoms that writers rely on daily are the underpinnings of all free societies.”

The PEN report was released on January 5. Two days later, gunmen burst into the boardroom of the satirical Parisian weekly Charlie Hebdo, killing ten journalists, apparently as revenge for the publication of offensive images of the Prophet Mohammed. By week’s end, Paris had endured three full days of terror, and twenty people – including the three suspects implicated in the Charlie Hebdo massacre – were dead.

The Paris shootings sparked global condemnation, though not all commentators were supportive of Charlie Hebdo‘s particular brand of satire, which seeks to ridicule and belittle not just Muslims, but any religion or political institution that claims authority over others. Writing in The New York Times, David Brooks criticized the puerility of Charlie Hebdo‘s “deliberately offensive” humour and pointed out that “there are a lot of people who are quick to lionize those who offend the views of Islamist terrorists in France but who are a lot less tolerant toward those who offend their own views at home.”

Free speech is, of course, an easy concept to defend when it is speech someone agrees with. The acid test involves one’s willingness to defend speech one finds personally offensive, hurtful, or disagreeable. I may not agree with what Ann Coulter says, but I will defend to the death her right to say it: not exactly the heights of Enlightenment rationalism, but an important concept to bear in mind nevertheless.

The Charlie Hebdo killings throw a light on some very difficult questions about the limits of free expression in a democratic society. Does the right to express oneself extend to the right to engage in deliberately hateful, racist, or derogatory speech targeting identifiable individuals or groups? If we assume that the Charlie Hebdo journalists have an unfettered right to express themselves in any way they wish, must we also extend this right to, say, the thirteen members of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” at Dalhousie University in Halifax, who posted rabidly misogynistic comments about female classmates on a private Facebook group, resulting in suspensions for the perpetrators and damage to the university’s reputation in the national media? Where does my freedom of expression end, and your sense of security begin?

In the wake of the Paris attacks, the online hacker collective Anonymous has threatened to shut down jihadist websites; this, some would argue, is an appropriate response to last week’s atrocities. It is also a pretty obvious encroachment on the speech rights of a group certain people have deemed dangerous or unworthy of the protections extended to others.

These are the very issues brought up by Snowden’s revelation of the extent to which the N.S.A. has been responsible for collecting information on U.S. citizens. The ability to engage in the kind of broad, warrantless surveillance Snowden demonstrated can’t help but have a chilling effect, and the danger is that this effect will get exacerbated in the fallout from the Paris killings. Here in Canada, the Conservative government is already making rumblings about using the Paris attack as an excuse to beef up domestic surveillance activities, something that was already on the table as a result of an assault by a lone gunman on Parliament in Ottawa last October.

This is a response everyone who prizes democratic ideals should be very concerned about. It would be all too easy to use last week’s violence as an excuse to further erode the privacy and freedoms of citizens in the name of keeping people safe. That would be a mistake. Quoted in Saturday’s Globe and Mail, Farhad Khosrokhavar, an authority on radical Islam, says, “The question is whether European societies would like to be free, and live more dangerously because they can’t arrest everyone, or whether they want less freedom and more security.” An essential aspect of this freedom involves the unfettered ability of writers, artists, musicians, and other creative types to express themselves without fear of reprisal, either from masked murderers or institutional instruments.

“What makes a surveillance system effective in controlling human behaviour is the knowledge that one’s words and actions are susceptible to monitoring,” writes Glenn Greenwald in No Place to Hide, his book about Edward Snowden and the N.S.A.’s domestic spying program. “[I]f you believe you are always being watched and judged, you are not really a free individual.”

It doesn’t really matter who does the watching and judging: governments, religious leaders, or lone gunmen intent on avenging some perceived slight or historical wrong. If the effect is to prevent the free exchange of ideas, to increase the impulse toward self-censorship, and to silence dissent, then we all lose.