Archbishop leads debate on freedom of speech

“When people are too scared to express their genuinely held and legally protected beliefs, that is very dangerous for democracy.”

On 10th December 2021 in the House of Lords the Archbishop of Canterbury held a debate on freedom of speech. His opening and closing remarks are below, and the full debate including the contributions of Peers and the Opposition and Government response, can be read in Hansard, here.

Moved by The Archbishop of Canterbury: That this House takes note of contemporary challenges to freedom of speech, and the role of public, private and civil society sectors in upholding freedom of speech.

The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, I am most grateful to the Leader of the House, the usual channels, all noble Lords who have taken the trouble to be here today and, especially, the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, for answering on behalf of the Government in order that we may have this debate. It is a return to an Advent tradition, interrupted in recent years by elections and pandemics. Should your Lordships worry that I am infectious in some way, I have been tested to the limits of testing. I have my granddaughter’s cold, for which I would like to record my grateful thanks.

We on these Benches have our critics—I have a large number—but for all our present failings you would be hard-pressed to find a more disastrous move by the Lords spiritual than when, in 1831, 21 of them lined up behind the Duke of Wellington and opposed the Great Reform Bill. Had they voted the other way, it would have passed. The people, denied their rights, responded with riots, and bishops were particularly targeted, some with violence. In Bristol, the Bishop’s Palace was burned down. A dead cat was thrown at my predecessor Archbishop Howley, narrowly missing him but striking his chaplain in the face. “Be glad it wasn’t a live one,” Howley is reported to have responded.

I start with this dive into the past because it illustrates a present point. The grey area between, on the one hand, peaceful protest and reasoned criticism and, on the other, incitement to hatred or to violence is one that we are still trying to navigate today. The Church of England knows about that. I must start by suggesting that our society should never follow our historical example of coercion, Test Acts and punishment. There is still a prison at Lambeth Palace at the top of the Lollards’ Tower, with room for eight people. It was used for the Lollards—I have a little list.

President Obama touched on the subject of freedom of speech and of religion in a powerful address on 5 February 2015 to the US national prayer breakfast. Speaking of freedom of speech, he said that, for that and freedom of religion, we need humility. He said that

“humility is also recognizing in modern, complicated, diverse societies, the functioning of these rights, the concern for the protection of these rights calls for each of us to exercise civility and restraint and judgment.”

What is it that we are debating today in this House when we talk about freedom of speech and why does it matter? Free speech is not just frank speech but fitting speech. It is a necessary condition to the building of good communities—that is my essential point in this speech—which are healthy enough to disagree well and which challenge power misused. If I may use flattery, but true flattery, for a moment, your Lordships’ House is such an example. Here we are in a place that, after much tragedy and disagreement, has learned that what matters is not just communication but good communication. The House encourages a community of sharp disagreement in a shared space, where politics is done in the classic Aristotelian sense, issues are settled and the classic misuses of power are rejected. Misused power is shown by killing, coercion or causing the opponent to flee. The alternative to those three things is politics.

Politics takes it for granted that human beings are not merely declarative but communicative; that is to say that there is an absolute link between freedom of speech and a healthy community. That is why it matters so much. It is not just a free-standing right, a good in and of itself, but the means—the only means—to the end of a just and generous society. That is surely something of which we all dream.

Having said that, I will touch on three of the major threats to freedom of speech today, as I see them: the fear of reprisal, the distortion of truth and the dehumanisation of those with whom we disagree. They are great threats and, as throughout our modern history, we should not underestimate the fragility of our society when it comes to the enjoyment of our freedoms. They must always be defended and guarded or they fail, and with the loss of freedom of speech go justice and generosity.

When it comes to the principle of freedom of speech, I am instinctively in favour of a maximalist and communitarian approach. When a columnist for the Spectator said that his hopes for the coming year included that I be

mugged at knife-point by a gang of refugees”,

I did not feel threatened or, for that matter, offended—not only because I doubt that many refugees are avid readers of his column but because, like my predecessors, I stand here in a position of privilege that, though it makes me noticed, also confers security.

In this Chamber we are all heard by virtue of our position. Sometimes, the height of that pedestal— or pulpit—means that we will be knocked off it very swiftly and publicly when we make a mistake, as I frequently have. But others do not have the privilege of a red leather cushion to land on. The dynamics of power matter greatly.

In that context, I pay tribute to those around the globe and in this country for whom freedom of speech is genuinely something to die for. We will hear more of this later, I suspect and hope. When I spend time with people who cannot speak freely, as I did recently, practise their faith freely or refuse all faith freely, I am reminded of the huge security that we have in this country and of our power, collectively, as its citizens. Those others know the dangers of constraints on speech.

Our understanding of the importance of freedom of speech and the threats to it needs to keep pace with the threats to its existence. Government regulation alone cannot be the answer. I welcome the Government’s moves to tackle online harms, but while we can protect those most at risk, we cannot—and should not—try to legislate ourselves to good behaviour. Dr Martin Luther King said that we cannot restrain hatred, but we can restrain haters. That is the limit of law. Fittingly robust and vehement debate should characterise our national life. Online harms Bills, or cancel culture being itself cancelled, cannot make us obey the command to engage with opponents as people, to face them and to destroy our enemies not with forms of suppression or law but

when we make them our friends.”

That is another quote from Dr King. David Amess was an example of frank speech and strong opinions that were fitting and based in communication, not mere individualism.

In his encyclical Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis spoke of the pervasive characteristic of power and violence in our societies… [pause]

—I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, for the water; I shall take his Lordship off my little list –

Pope Francis spoke of the need to call out the abuse of power over others rather than the building of renewed communities by sharing power with them. The vehemence of social media is often the voice of those previously unheard and for that reason it is resented by those who have always been heard.

We hear much nonsense of the snowflake generation who seek safety. Younger generations are more concerned than their older counterparts about the safety and protection of minorities and more willing to call for restrictions on speech to achieve this. We need to keep a sense of perspective here. No-platforming is not a new phenomenon and there is evidence to suggest that it is very limited. The way I can remember minorities being addressed 40 to 50 years ago shows that more concern about safety then would have been a good thing. Freedom of speech sometimes means freedom for the powerful to bully and abuse.

When we speak of freedom of speech, we create two false binaries. First, we set freedom of speech against safety. Freedom demands safety—there is no freedom in acting out of fear—and safety, in turn, demands freedom. Also, there is no conflict between freedom and community; they are absolutely interdependent.

If freedom of speech is to flourish in this country despite its enemies, how might we foster those habits of the heart and mind that encourage a society that listens, reflects and responds with generosity and grace? Just as importantly, how might we ensure that in our desire to curb the extremes we do not silence the prophetic or those who challenge injustice and speak uncomfortable truths or that we do not push them to the margins? I hope to hear more today about the institutions and bodies that can enable that to be the characteristic of our society—what my great predecessor William Temple called the intermediary institutions.

One of the most important is the BBC, in both its domestic and World Service versions. Of course, it gets things wrong, but its continual history of being banned by tyrants, which goes on to this day, demonstrates the fear that impartial reporting—true freedom of speech—generates in those who seek to stifle all liberty. The BBC usually speaks frankly but also fittingly.

Increasingly, we also see the faith communities in many places as proponents of freedom, living out the Reformation truth that free speech opens the way to communities that challenge injustice. I think today of a senior Anglican overseas, whom I speak to very regularly but cannot name for his own security, who constantly speaks for free speech in a place of great insecurity.

Timothy Garton Ash summarised three vetoes of freedom in an illuminating way: techniques to silence others include shouting them down, which he calls the “heckler’s veto”; declaring what they say to be offensive, which he calls the “offensiveness veto”; and, in extreme cases, killing them or threatening to do so—the “assassin’s veto”. We have witnessed all these throughout history. The real issue of freedom of speech has been not regulations, measures or laws that oppress it but these three vetoes, often acting in partnership. Yet attacks on freedom are shape-shifters, and their most dramatic metamorphosis has been in recent years.

MPs and Members of your Lordships’ House will know what it is to be on the end of robust criticism, which we expect; abuse, which we put up with; and sometimes physical threats, which we have learned, through grave and tragic experience, to take seriously. At its most intense, this kind of targeting can make fear the senior partner of judgment. The anticipation of being howled down on social media is a constraint on speaking freely. It is fear not of being argued with but of the abusive and threatening hecklers in their thousands and tens of thousands. The setting up of fake websites, the use of hacking and the effectiveness of bots all bring the heckler’s veto from a point of irritation to a threat to sanity and stability, even to the threat of social chaos. Algorithms reinforce choices. At the same time, we must bear in mind that, in many countries, social media has been the main bulwark of struggles for freedom.

As we will hear later, the online world has completely changed the way in which we share and receive ideas. We are increasingly our own curators, editors and publishers. The partial upending of traditional power dynamics is a good thing, but we find ourselves in somewhat uncharted territory, in grey areas where the law is just beginning to catch up, and in a different culture in which the rules of engagement are still being developed and understood. We see trade-offs, in that our exposure to variety is determined by impersonal and market-driven algorithms. Privacy is as much a choice as it used to be a given.

The lesson from all times, including from monopolistic owners of media companies in the past and social media today, is that all legislation and social pressure must stand against the commodification of speech. When it becomes a tradeable commodity, it ceases to be a freedom-building community. We see this reflected in the words of Zechariah Chafee, a key figure in the modern American First Amendment tradition, who said:

It is hopeless for the law to draw the line between liberty and license”,

but we can look into our own hearts and make that decision before we speak out.

The struggle in a connected world is to distinguish what is morally reprehensible from that which is criminally punishable. In our society in this country, we are at the point where we say that, if we explicitly incite violence and stir hatred that will lead to violence, there should be criminal sanctions. Outside incitement or our established defences of slander and defamation, we must focus our efforts on cultivating—through education, higher education, further education and many other ways—a culture that is permissive rather than prohibitive, by which I mean encouraging of fitting speech rather than attempting to ban bad speech.

Freedom of speech also requires respect for truth. The spread of misinformation by conspiracy theorists—notably around the vaccine—political agitators or hostile actors is a serious problem that big tech companies and Governments must do more to tackle. I look forward to hearing more from my right reverend friend the Bishop of Oxford about this and online harms, which he will focus on in his speech.

The third threat to our freedom of speech is the dehumanisation of those with whom we disagree: the devaluation of others to diminish their arguments. We must be alert to how our habits of communication can stifle our creative imagination—how they might make us see others as somehow less than fully human. Much of what is problematic with the online world is that it is not conducive to seeking truth and that it gives equal opportunity to deliberate and dangerous misinformation designed to cloud the truth. To put it another way, sunlight is no more always the best disinfectant—no more than disinfectant is ever medicine for treating Covid. When people are too scared to express their genuinely held and legally protected beliefs, that is very dangerous for democracy.

Finally, as a Christian, I believe that Jesus Christ is the truth revealed—but that truth is so profound, so deep and so incomprehensible to us that, 2,000 years later, we in the Church are still deepening and reflecting on our understanding of the truth of God. That deepening of truth requires a deepening of community, and that requires freedom of speech. Within the 165 countries of today’s global Anglican Communion, we have radically different understandings on almost everything—that is far from new—but the most productive thing that we have done is forming groups called “bishops in dialogue”, where bishops from all over the Anglican Communion discuss, talk and evaluate the practical implications of what they hear and believe. This is freedom of speech, building freedom of community.

My great predecessor Lord Williams said:

“No one’s interests are best served by avoiding the hard encounters and the fresh insights.”

In John’s Gospel, Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?” He does not wait for an answer—he washes his hands of the situation and pronounces judgment to appease the mob. At Lambeth Palace we seek to avoid the vetoes, the coercion and the causing to flee. We have published the “Difference” course, which seeks to reimagine how we engage across difference.

I believe that God’s purpose for humanity is to have not fearful slaves but loving children. We are called to treat each other as we would ourselves like to be treated, with recognition of our flawedness, space for forgiveness and support of our freedom. In so doing, we are able to create good communities of justice, truth and generosity.

I hope that this debate will be an occasion for more light than heat, which is sadly too often not the case in so much of our public dialogue about freedom questions. I greatly look forward to hearing contributions from across the House. I beg to move.


Closing remarks:

My Lords, by the grace of God my voice is giving out entirely. It is 2.05 pm and I will be relatively brief. We have just heard an absolutely magnificent summing up from the Minister. He has saved me a lot of time in following that. I will just pick up some basic principles that seem to have come out of what, to me, has been a remarkable debate. Not a single speech has failed to attract a lot of notes in my notebook. It has been an extraordinary contribution by a wide range of very wise people.

It is a fortunate coincidence, and particularly fitting, that this is international Human Rights Day. It is also clear—I had not added it up in my mind—that not only do we have the report on online safety coming, as the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, pointed out to us, but we also have a whole rank of legislation to which the principles we have talked about today will be applicable. I will come back to that in a minute.

I will draw on some things that seem to have been brought out. The noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, and other noble Lords quite rightly emphasised the importance of truth. That centrality of what we are trying to arrive at—a truthful, generous and just society—is at the heart of what we are doing.

The noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, referred to many of the institutions, some of which she has headed, that have a role in regulation in our society. I agreed entirely with her very good speech. My only question was when she said they should not be political. I say that all existence is political. They should not be partisan, but I suspect she was using the word in the way I use “partisan”. It was very helpful as she went through those things.

The importance of truth is first. Second is the importance of debate and reason. Many things have been raised here, so I will skip over most of my notes. I simply say that I was deeply moved by the long list from the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington, of those who have suffered from the intolerance that many have been going through, particularly those such as JK Rowling and many academics. That is a principle we have to bear in mind as we go forward.

Third is the recognition of power. My right reverend friend the Bishop of Oxford did an extraordinary job outlining what I had referred to too briefly in my opening speech as the commodification of freedom of speech. His expertise in that area is very important. Particularly, he drew out the fact that algorithms come from money and profit. They are driven more by hatred than by politeness and courtesy.

I was particularly struck by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hannan, about generous listening. I thought that was a powerful phrase, because generous and careful listening undermines power differentials. Talking of power differentials, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, was not allowed to speak from these two Benches yesterday. I am not allowed to speak from any Bench apart from these two, so I am more persecuted than she is. I am kidding. Archbishops of Canterbury are never persecuted—although they are occasionally executed. What the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, said about power was extraordinarily powerful. I took extensive notes and will reflect on them at some length.

Fourthly, on equipping and training for free speech, the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, spoke eloquently and powerfully about the danger of safe spaces. The only quibble—it is a quibble—I would make is that the term “safe spaces” is misused. There are plenty of safe spaces that are designed as such. Think of what the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said in her summing up: a Jewish society at a university is not obliged to invite people who deny the Holocaust. It is a safe space from that point of view. Debating societies remain safe spaces because they have rules about the quality of debate. This place is a safe space because it has rules about what you can and cannot say. If I were to say what I thought about ‘the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Barchester’—that I believe he is a drunken, cowardly sot—I would rightly, if he existed, be picked up almost immediately. There would be cries of “order” all around and I would be asked to withdraw. That makes this a safe space. Safe spaces can exist without restricting freedom of speech.

However, we need to equip and train people for freedom of speech. I draw your Lordships’ attention to the rules of the University of Chicago on freedom of speech; google it and you will find a fascinating account of how, for more than 100 years, it has been one of the formative principles of that university. It is well worth looking at.

Fifthly, we need to challenge. We need the importance of truth, debate and reason, the recognition of power, equipping in training and the challenge of vetoes and assassins—of the tendency to kill, coerce and cause to flee. The noble Baroness, Lady Merron, was particularly powerful on this in what she said about culture wars and toxicity. We met each other when she was running the Board of Deputies; the Church of England has also signed up to the IHRA, just so you know. I am sure that she knew that already but it was not mentioned. Noble Lords know the old rule: everything has been said but it has not all been said by me.

I was particularly moved by the characteristically generous and thoughtful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Singh. His call to move with the times as a way of avoiding the toxicity of culture wars was very powerful indeed. In moving with the times, I come to the question of the church of St Mary the Virgin in Teesdale, raised by the noble Baroness, Lady McIntosh. I hear from the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham that there has been no decision to close it yet. There will have to be a lengthy consultation. When we do consultations in the Church of England, we think in centuries, sadly.

Sixthly, I hope that the Government will reflect on the principles that have been so wisely shared across this House as they bring forward the legislation they are bringing forward at the moment. I hope that there are ways of testing the quality of that legislation, because this is not purely political. All these subjects, including in the PCSC Bill, are extremely difficult to legislate on. May these principles, which have been so widely brought out, be the principles on which we do our legislating. They include others that I will just mention in a few sentences.

The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, talked about the way we label for exclusion. I have talked about anti-Semitism and picked up what the noble Baroness, Lady Merron, said. My final point comes back to what the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Sentamu, said about the importance of law. That is why we must bring this debate together with the legislation because, as he quoted from two books I have also read by Law Lords, I recognise the centrality of that in expressing in words what we hope to develop in attitudes.

Finally—genuinely finally—I was deeply touched by the stories that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, told about his friendships with people with whom he disagreed almost entirely. At the heart of freedom of speech is the interlinking between freedom of speech, just and generous communities and healthy relationships across our society. He brought that out wonderfully. I am sure that when we take up the offer of the noble Lord, Lord Griffiths, of a series of lectures, he will be able to expand on that better than I ever could. Once again, I thank your Lordships for an absolutely wonderful series of speeches. I am deeply grateful for your taking time on a Friday and I will not detain you any longer.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 2.16 pm.

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