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Rowan Atkinson on the Importance of Free Speech

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In the video below, actor, comedian and writer, Rowan Atkinson, best known for his work on the show, ‘Mr. Bean’, passionately explains why free speech is absolutely crucial to any civilized society.

He opens with stating that the ‘second most precious thing in life, is the right to express yourself freely.’  He ranks the right to freely express yourself just below the need to eat, and just above having a roof over your head.

He goes on to speak about how he has had the privilege of enjoying free speech his entire professional career and believes, because of his high public profile, he will be able to continue to do so, despite whatever barriers may be imposed through legislative means.

He emphasises that he understands the position he is in and is passionately advocating for free speech to stand up for those who are not in the same position. He lists examples where lower-profile individuals had their freedom of expression denied, such as a man arrested in Oxford for calling a police horse a homophobic slur, a teenager arrested for calling the Church of Scientology a cult and a café owner arrested for displaying Bible verses on a TV screen.

He reminisces on his own past and makes examples from his time on the sketch comedy show, ‘Not the Nine O’clock News’ where he, as a station commander, was giving a ‘dressing down’ of the hilarious ‘Constable Savage’. Constable Savage had arrested a man on a series of trumped up and ludicrous charges such as ‘walking on the cracks of the pavement’, ‘walking in a loud shirt in a built-up area during the hours of darkness’ and ‘walking around all over the place’.

He draws comparisons between the sketch comedy show and legislation that allowed for the above arrests to take place in order to emphasise the ridiculous nature of the incidents. He states that the only reason why these cases were dropped was because of the publicity they had achieved and the likely ridicule that would’ve resulted at the expense of the police involved.

The unfortunate individuals concerned still had to endure the whole process of getting arrested and going to court, only to have their cases dropped as a result of their ridiculous nature. This is not an example of the law working properly, as these cases were dropped purely as a result of the publicity surrounding them, but what about the thousands of other cases that do not garner as much attention?

He states that this abuse of power in order to enforce censorship under threat of intimidation is guaranteed to have a ‘chilling effect’ on free expression and free protest.

The fact that criminalisation of insults comes down to subjective interpretation of speech, and is too broad in its nature, opens a dark door to which extremely dangerous precedents are set. There are many things that people say each day that may offend someone. If offence is the standard of arrest, then this gives rise to an extremely authoritarian and controlling society that may have no way back.

He believes that the way in which we address prejudices, injustices and resentments is not through the threat of arrest, but rather through discussion and debate outside the realms of the legal system.

He believes that the way in which we ‘increase society’s resistance to insulting or offensive speech is to allow a lot more of it.’ An immunity to taking offence needs to be built up and the only way this can be accomplished is by being exposed to more of it. Only then is it possible to identify justified criticism and deal with the ‘message, not the messenger.’

We need to build a robust society capable of understanding the best way of dealing with differences of opinion, in order to be able to live harmoniously with those with whom we may disagree.

You can watch the full video here:

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