There is discussion about arbitrary censorship of our freedom of expression in every possible policy area these days. While the issue is intensely political, it is crucial to understand that arbitrary censorship is not a matter of left-wing or right-wing politics, but a threat to democracy as a whole.
Human rights law in Europe and internationally foresees that there are conditions where restrictions on freedom of expression can justifiably be implemented. However, such restrictions need to be genuinely necessary and provided for by an accessible law that can be challenged in an independent court.
We can see how this principle works in practice in the US and Europe. The US Supreme Court ruled that speech that tends “to incite an immediate breach of the peace” is not protected by free speech rules. Similarly, in the well-known Handyside vs UK case, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the plaintiff’s free speech rights had not been breached by a fine applied for the publication of an “obscene” book, but did set a high bar for such restrictions to be imposed.
The need for protection of freedom of expression represents a long-standing democratic consensus about safeguarding our fundamental freedoms from abuses, regardless of the political motivation of the abuse. Without freedom of expression, there is less political accountability. Less accountability means more abuse and more corruption.
Arbitrary censorship: An issue of human rights, not left and right.
We know from history that oppressive regimes and ideologies, whether they claim be from the left or from the right, have always sought to undermine freedom of expression. This is done overtly by censorship laws and/or insidiously by intimidation of the media.
Arbitrary censorship has resulted in pro-choice channels being repeatedly blocked on YouTube.
Arbitrary censorship has resulted in LGBT channels being “hidden” by YouTube.
Arbitrariness threatens the weakest.
Arbitrariness threatens democracy and accountability.
Looking back – history teaches us all we need to know.
Looking forwards – we must never repeat the mistakes of the past.
Fighting arbitrary censorship is about decency, equality and truth, not politics.
(Contribution by Joe McNamee, EDRi Executive Director)