Spiderman vs freedom of speech

30 January 2015

As a great man once said, “with great power comes great responsibility”. As our front page story shows, the issues of platforming, freedom of speech, freedom of expression and the free press have come up time and time again: the abortion debate in Oxford, the atrocities against Charlie Hebdo in Paris and Germaine Greer’s invitation to the Cambridge Union.

It’s not my job as an editor, or our job as a student newspaper, to wade into these subjects and come out as being on one side or another, and to do so would be pretty inappropriate and verge on being naïve. It is our job, though, to use our platform responsibly.

We have a large readership and print run, and a big impact on discussion, conversation as one of the three main student publications in Cambridge. You only need to look at the building momentum and division over the reading week debate reported in our last issue to see that how we use our platform matters.

The problem with so much of the argument about defending freedom is that it is rooted in an outdated culture. It is telling that so many ‘free-speech warriors’ hark back to 18th and 19th century philosophers to back up their position. The emergence of the free press and the fight against the last bastions of serious state censorship at that point in history made truly free speech a radical act – something to be fought for, constantly defended and never compromised.

“Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains,” said Rousseau. In many places in the world that is still true today, but “everywhere” is taking things a bit far. You’d have to be some kind of conspiracy theorist to believe that we don’t have a fairly substantial level of freedom in this country today.

With this in mind, we shouldn’t conflate the fight against oppression led by organisations like Amnesty International with the state of our rights to free speech and expression in the UK and other relatively free societies.

We’re lucky that we’re at a stage where we can afford to think less about rights, and more about responsibilities. This means thinking critically about whose views we give credence to by giving them the prominence of our platforms – here in our dingy newspaper offices as much as anywhere else.

Media, and student media in particular, has a very important role. If we play our cards right, we can expose failings, injustices, wrongdoings and suchlike. We can use our platform to make an active difference in our community. Or we can give racist, sexist, and other variously awful views the use of our free-for-hire megaphone. That’s our choice.

Sure, in the privacy of a conversation with your friend Jim, bang on about how you think Hitler got it right really, and that if we’re honest women probably shouldn’t earn as much as men just because, you know, reasons. That’s your prerogative. That’s your freedom of speech. But doing that through the legitimising beacon of the Cambridge Union Society, or the student press is something else. At that point, don’t let’s bang on about freedom of speech with the sensitivity of a Labrador humping a toy bunny rabbit. Let’s have the responsibility to be considerate of others, and above all, remember – “with great power comes great responsibility”.