We are now immersed in an intense debate surrounding free speech issues. Social media, comment pages on electronic news sites and talk radio have created a wide arena for public debate, banter and a great deal of mudslinging. While many of these comments can best be described with a depressing number of negative adjectives — sexist, racist, homophobic, xenophobic, etc. — they share common ground in that this freedom to express oneself is now taken for granted. It has not always been so.
Free speech in Bermuda has only really developed over the past ten years; twenty years ago our Island was constrained by a culture of intimidation and backroom tactics exerted by the power elite to stifle dissenting opinions. So much so was this the case that a Royal Commissioner Justice Stephen Tumim in 1992 referred to a “fear of speaking out” as a fundamental challenge for Bermuda.
One personal story illustrates the nature of the political terrain 20 years ago. In 1993 I produced and hosted a weekly television show called Behind the Headlines, where I interviewed prominent personalities on key issues. When I sought to interview the Minister of Finance and the Shadow Minister, the Minister declined, leaving me to interview only the Shadow Minister. After this interview the Broadcasting Commission labelled my show a political broadcast and sought to impose significant restraints. When I appeared before the commission, chaired by Louise Jackson, and explained the show was of a “political nature” but not a “political broadcast” as outlined in the relevant legislation, the commission told me I did not understand the law. One member, John Plowman, asked me, “What is your real agenda?” With two directly opposed views the show remained off the air. Immediately after the 1993 general election the commission wrote to me indicating they now accept my position the programme was indeed of a “political nature”, not a “political broadcast” and that I was free to resume my broadcast. My conclusion was the obvious one: the politically appointed commission members did not want open discussion on political issues in the run up to an election.
Such tactics would never be tolerated today and we have evolved to a place where the public across the political spectrum takes for granted the centrality of free speech in our discourse. But with free speech comes responsibility; and we are unfortunately inundated with a great deal of irresponsibility today. Some of this irresponsibility causes embarrassment to individuals and poses challenges for political parties, although the latter are fair game. Amidst calls for restraint there is the inevitable call for the state to be more assertive in exercising control over what people say. Any move in this direction would be unwise and would require challenge — we cannot go back 20 years. The reality is that free and democratic societies — and we aspire to that — must protect this right to free speech.
One way to shift the tenor of our public discourse is to lead by the example you wish to set. If you think anonymous writers are anathema to sincere debate, ignore them. If you conclude that talk show caller is making merely personal attacks and not dealing with issues, ignore them. And if you determine the person challenging your position never seeks to actually engage you in debate but merely vents, then perhaps they should be ignored as well.
Free speech is a cornerstone of a strong democracy. It needs to be both cherished and respected. When we respect this right perhaps more of us will exercise it responsibly.