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Are We in a Culture of ‘Limited Free Speech?’

In an exploration of global issues, can we determine there is a decline of freedom of speech in the UK and and the US?

Man with mouth taped over with 'censored freedom' written.
Credit: Shutterstock/alexskopje

With an array of issues on the rise, this is an introductory investigation into the current state of free speech in the US and the UK, specifically looking into TikTok banning, book bans and protest legislation.

Freedom of speech and freedom of expression are fundamental to a free and open society. When these freedoms are not protected, democracy itself becomes threatened. A report from PubMed highlights that if states do not protect these freedoms, democracy is threatened in two ways:

  1. When individuals are not allowed to express their ideas, key characteristics of democracy such as plurality and inclusivity are undermined.
  2. Additionally, these individuals become vulnerable, as they are relegated to second-class citizens.

This 2023 PubMed report suggests that freedom of expression is declining in Western democracy. Dr. Olivier Jutel, a former journalist and current lecturer in media at the University of Otago, agrees. When asked how he would describe the current state of freedom of speech in Western society, Jutel stated: “It is not good.” We will investigate these claims to analyze the current culture of freedom of speech within the UK and the US.

Prosecution of journalists

Jutel recognizes that freedom of speech is normally addressed from the perspective that ‘woke’ college students are jeopardizing the concept. However, Jutel “attack[ed] this from an angle that is not normally discussed,” as he commented on the “political prosecution of Julian Assange.” Jutel declared that Assange “exposed American and NATO military intelligence crimes… [and] is being sent off to Belmarsh… a maximum security prison… which is a massive affront to freedom of speech.”

The arrest of Assange is not a singular event; it is a part of many anti-press prosecutions, The Guardian reports. This includes ex-journalist Tim Burke, who faces charges under the Computer Fraud Abuse Act (CFAA).

Tim Burke’s arrest

Burke’s indictment comes after he spread unaired outtakes of a Fox News Interview with rapper Ye (formerly Kanye West). The outtakes showed how Fox News edited out the rapper’s anti-Semetic and racist rants.

Burke’s retrieval of these outtakes has been deemed unlawful. Burke’s account stated in Ars Technica that a source pointed to an internet archive in which a radio station posted demo credentials to access a page where URLs were not publicly listed. These credentials enabled Burke to access and spread the full interview. However, because Burke did not obtain permission for the demo credentials, he has been charged with one count of conspiracy, six counts of accessing a protected computer without authorization, and seven counts of disclosing electronic communications.

Former journalist Tim Burke pictured.
Former journalist Tim Burke pleads not guilty. Credit: Youtube/Fox 13 Tampa Bay

Burke continues to fight against the indictment. If he is charged on all counts, he faces a maximum penalty of 62 years in prison.

However, The Freedom Of Press Foundation has continually argued that the Computer Fraud Abuse Act is too vague and easily abused. The foundation also argued that if journalists have to ask permission to expose organizations, injustice will never come to light. This ultimately undermines journalists’ role of exposing hierarchies of power as well as the principles of free speech.

TikTok ban in the US

The prosecution of journalists links to a larger narrative of a decline in freedom of speech, which has recently manifested in attempts to ban the short video-sharing platform, TikTok.

Trump has previously tried to ban TikTok, and democratic leader Biden has passed legislation to attempt the same. BBC reports that TikTok will be banned unless shares owned by Chinese parent company, Byte Dance, are sold within 9 months. However, this will likely be after the next election, so the legislation may change.

TikTok logo crossed out with US flag in background.
TikTok may be banned in America by 2025. Credit: Shutterstock/salarko

The banning comes in the wake of national security concerns about how US user data is being used by China’s authoritarian government. However, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing with the app, as it collects similar data to the likes of Facebook and Instagram.

TikTok is fighting back by claiming that attempts to ban it are “unconstitutional.” Chief Executive Shou Zi Chew stated, “we are not going anywhere.”

TikTok ban to limit Israel-Gaza backlash

National security risks have been criticized as the sole reason for the banning. The Freedom Of Press Foundation (FPF) reported in The Guardian that it is an “open secret” that this is a tactic to silence the backlash against the Israel-Gaza war. Jutel agrees that this ban is designed to minimize free speech and moderate political commentary. According to him, “it was the Palestine-Israel conflict that really pushed the TikTok ban over the line and it is a hostile takeover.”

FPF has deemed this legislation to be far too vague, because there is no comprehensive definition of what constitute a national security risk. Essentially, the legislation can allow apps or news outlets with ties to Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea to be banned. Furthermore, there is no evidence of TikTok’s assumed wrongdoings.

Without a clear definition of national security risk, how can the US public know if the restricted information is damaging or purely oppositional to governmental ideals?

TikTok Ban in the UK

Concerns about a ban have also been voiced in the UK, The Guardian reports. Former Conservative party leader Ian Duncan Smith said “we should have done it ourselves” in reference to the ban. This may have coincided with the recently proposed legislation of banning phones for children under 16 in the UK.

US lawmakers admission

Lawmakers have commented on the relation of the TikTok ban to oppositional Israel-Gaza rhetoric, Rolling Stone reports. Utah Senator Mitt Romney highlighted that there is an overwhelming amount of support for the TikTok ban to minimize Palestinian content. He stated, “You look at the posting on TikTok and the number of Palestinians relative to other social media sites…it’s overwhelming…so I know that’s of real interest [to] the president.”

Meanwhile, former US representative Mike Gallagher stated that TikTok is “brainwashing our youth” by “promoting Pro-Hamas content.” TikTok rejects this; since October 7th, the app has removed more than 3.1 million videos in Israel and Palestine for violating guidelines and promoting Hamas, hate speech, violent extremism, and misinformation.

Book bans in the US and UK

Another important component of this discussion is book bans and book banning attempts. The American Library Association (ALA) reports in Truthout that book ban attempts in the US skyrocketed in 2023 with 4,240 titles challenged — a 65% increase from 2022. The actual figure may be larger because many book ban attempts are not flagged. 4,240 titles marks the highest this figure has ever been, which is a daunting notion. Books featuring LGBTQ and BIPOC characters made up 47% of challenges.

Stack of banned books.
Many requested book bans include themes of race and sexuality. Credit: Shutterstock/MKPhoto12

A similar trend is present in the UK, as book ban requests are on the rise. Data published by the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) states that in 2023, 1/3rd of librarians were asked by the public to censor books. Many librarians have also faced threats of violence to gain this censorship.

Similarly to the US, the ban requests contain controversial themes. This connects to PubMed’s report, which states that hate speech is disproportionately used as a tool to restrict freedom of expression from minority groups. Also, the report highlights how Westerners are becoming less tolerant of differing opinions.

“We’ve had reports of requests to remove materials that deal with race and empire and Britain’s colonial heritage.”

Nick Poole, CILIP Chief Executive.

New UK library guidelines

In response to the increase in book-banning requests in the UK, CILIP provided updated guidelines for libraries in 2023. The 52-page document emphasizes that librarians should never act as a censor, because good library is told to “encompass controversial issues.” CEO Nick Poole expressed concern with the current democratic environment, as it is “more important than ever that our sector is clear in its opposition to censorship.”

Protest legislation in the UK

Another significant area to examine on the topic of freedom of speech is the recent High Court ruling that the government acted unlawfully in relation to protests. Last month, civil rights group Liberty won its case against the UK government, which was found to have exceeded its powers, Reuters reports.

Police taking away protestors in the UK.
Police officers intervening in protest with “more than minor” disruption. Credit: Shutterstock/JordanCrosby

Previously, police could impose certain conditions when a protest was causing “serious disruption to the life of the community.” However, last year, the wording was changed to be “more than minor” — a change to police orders that was not passed through Parliament.

This underscores how the UK government is moving toward the trend of minimizing free speech in order to ensure that critical views of the government are limited and even silenced.

Conclusion

Overall, from examining case studies on the prosecution of journalists, TikTok-banning, book bans and protest legislation, the PubMed report is accurate in its analysis that free speech is continually being threatened in the UK and the US. This is highly concerning for the survival of democracy. Therefore, we must aim to be more tolerant of differing opinions to protect the freedom of speech and expression.

Written By

2nd year Journalism and Communication student from Nottingham UK studying at Cardiff University. Currently on study exchange to the University of Otago in New Zealand.

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