Brexit Opponents Are Restricting Free Speech

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By Joanna Williams | 5:45 am, November 8, 2016

Last week The Daily Mail declared that the three High Court Judges who ruled that Brexit could not be triggered without a Parliamentary vote were “Enemies of the People“.

The outrage sparked by this headline has led to a petition calling for the Mail to be prosecuted for contempt and social media campaigns to boycott the paper’s advertisers.

It turns out that whatever the motivation of the judges, there are many Tweeters and commentators who hold the population in such contempt they want the press restricted and free speech curtailed. Petitions and boycotts might not be explicit demands to shut a newspaper down: but they serve the exact same purpose. They are designed to put the paper out of business through cutting advertising revenue and forcing expenditure on legal fees.

In the aftermath of the massacre of the Charlie Hebdo journalists in Paris last year many academics, journalists and campaigners rushed to proclaim their support for press freedom. Politicians argued that free speech and press freedom were fundamental British values.

Well, now it seems that many of these very same people have changed their minds. A free press might be well and good in theory, they appear to suggest, but not in practice. And definitely not when it is used it to argue for something they disagree with.

A free press needs to be allowed to criticise the judiciary. The rhetorical question, translated from Latin, “Who guards the guardians?” is often interpreted as “Who judges the judges?”. The only answer can be: the people.

The public must hold the judiciary to account and newspapers play an important part in this. Placing judges, or anyone else, beyond criticism has significant implications not just for free speech but for democracy. Anyone who supports free speech needs to defend the right of a newspaper to label judges “enemies of the people”.

In reality, many of the people busily signing petitions and Tweeting #StopFundingHate are not averse to criticising judges at all. Judges in rape trials who award sentences deemed to be too lenient, or like the High Court Judge Lord Stewart, make statements that particular cases were  “essentially non-violent relationship rapes” are frequently taken to task, especially by feminist campaigners.

The judge who oversaw the retrial of footballer Ched Evans in which his rape conviction was quashed was likewise roundly criticised.

Criticising judges is fair comment, it seems, unless the very same group of feminists, academics, Tweeters and campaigners agree with what the judge said. The Mail’s mistake was not criticising judges, but backing Brexit and offending the Remainers who got excited about the potential for a legal route to disregard the referendum outcome or just delay and water-down Brexit plans.

So far, just over 27,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Daily Mail to be prosecuted. This sounds pretty impressive – until, that is, you consider something approaching 2 million people actually hand over money to read the same paper each day.

And in a democracy, numbers count. Just as the 52% who voted leave in the referendum is bigger than the 48% who voted remain, so too is the Mail’s circulation bigger than the number of petitioners. Remainers might not like what’s written in the Mail but their job is to take up the arguments, not to get the paper shut down.

Campaigns against newspapers are always disingenuous. It’s not the paper petitioners don’t like so much as the people who read it. The “Enemies of the People” headline has been described as “dangerous” and “like something from Nazi Germany“. But headlines are just words.

What’s really being labelled as dangerous are people who read tabloid newspapers, people who voted leave, people who are now angry that a democratic decision to leave the EU, based on a promise that “the government will implement what you decide” is now being taken away from them.

And as attacks on democracy become attacks against free speech, the more people are right to be angry.