OPINION: Freedom of expression is a right, not a privilege

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OPINION: Freedom of expression is a right, not a privilege

Freedom of expression was a great gift and one never forgotten, after the children of Israel left Egypt, writes Alex Brummer.

Alex Brummer is a Jewish News columnist and the City Editor, Daily Mail

Parting of the Red Sea. pic: Chabad
Parting of the Red Sea. pic: Chabad

The power of freedom of expression has been dramatically illustrated in Israel, where public protests, social media and parts of the written press campaigned fearlessly against Benjamin Netanyahu’s judicial reforms, now paused.

Among many of Israel’s neighbours, dissident views would be cruelly suppressed.

Freedom of the press defines democracies and sets them apart from autocratic and totalitarian regimes. In the USA, press freedom was considered so important to the creation of a just and fair society that it was imported into the constitution as the First Amendment in 1791. American tabloids, believe it or not, are far less constrained than our own.

Alex Brummer

In the UK there is no shortage of views, angles and beliefs, with 10 national newspapers titles still published in print each day. We also have healthy competition and a wealth of different opinion in the vibrant Jewish press.

Commercial TV and radio provide an alternative view to the often pallid BBC. Only Gary Lineker, with his ignorance of Nazi Germany, stretches the limits of what can be said!

The British press, for all its critics, ranging from Prince Harry to the actor Hugh Grant, is constrained by libel and defamation laws and the silence orders issued by government on national security grounds. The Ipso press regulator, a post-2012 Leveson reform, is another restrain on excess and behaviour.

Online publications and social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook ‘self-monitor’, and are held to lower standards than traditional media. Hiding behind the free expression trope, they have pushed the boundaries on everything from pornography to hate speech and violence. Prince Harry, who is pursuing Associated Newspapers (owners of the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday) through the courts, would find it all but impossible to pursue his cases of invasion of privacy against the Silicon Valley monoliths.

The Passover story also speaks to freedom of expression. The Israelites were expected to be grateful when they crossed the Red Sea. But there are countless examples of them speaking out against a lack of food and drink. Free will also led them to create the golden calf at the very moment that Moses was conversing with God.

At our High Holy Day we are confronted with all kinds of restrictions on free speech in the Al Chet prayer, which talks, among other things, of the sins we have committed through ‘utterances of the lips’.

The origins of this can be traced back to the Talmud, which rails against stealing words from each other; a defence in some respect of intellectual property. Another section highlights the importance of being mindful in speech: lashan hara, or evil speech, is a sin to be avoided.

In the UK, a whole legal industry has grown up around the concept of free speech. Barely a day passes on a national newspaper when a missive from law firm doesn’t arrive by email or messenger making complaints.

It used to be that justified corrections were difficult. Online does allow both the opportunity to revisit a written article or, even better, to comment. The coarseness of the public debate often requires the instant comment to be adjudicated on before publication.

Freedom of speech has its limits and varies from one society to another. North America offers the greatest freedoms, which is why some complainants resort to the British courts. What is clear, however, is that when the children of Israel left Egypt, freedom of expression was one of the great gifts and one never forgotten.

For many in the UK, the turmoil in Israel over the judiciary has been deeply disturbing. But even a determined government can be stopped in its tracks by the court of public opinion. Freedom of expression is a right, not just a privilege. Nevertheless, as the Talmud and our liturgy makes plain, those rights do not stretch to the ‘false news’ or conspiracy theories that have become so prevalent.

  • Alex Brummer is city editor of the Daily Mail
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