An open letter championing free speech and rejecting a new culture of censorship has been signed by more than 150 leading authors, academics and thinkers, who say people must be free to disagree with one another.
In ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, the signatories said a “new set of moral values” is being embraced which weakens “our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”.
Those signing the letter included well-known authors JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, feminist writer Gloria Steinem and humanist academic Steven Pinker.
They said: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.”
Censorship is also increasing in all areas of society, manifesting in “an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.
“We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”
‘Threat of reprisal’
The signatories said it is “troubling” that some leaders of various institutions, rather than introducing considered reforms are delivering “hasty and disproportionate punishments”.
They noted that editors have been fired over controversial pieces, journalists have been barred from covering certain topics, and academics have been investigated for quoting or circulating literature or peer-reviewed studies containing unpopular content.
“Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.
“We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”
The letter concluded: “As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.
“If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”
In Scotland, the Government’s controversial hate crime legislation – which seeks to extend the law on ‘hate crime’ covering particular characteristics, including religion, sexual orientation and transgender identity – has been described as a dangerous threat to free speech.
The Scottish Daily Mail called the Bill “a broad and sweeping piece of legislation that risks criminalising speech currently considered merely offensive or even an expression of political belief”.