The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned against trying to “legislate ourselves to good behaviour”, insisting Government regulation alone cannot be the answer to protecting freedom of speech.
The Most Rev Justin Welby told peers that “fear of reprisal”, “distortion of truth” and the “dehumanisation” of people others disagree with are three “major threats” to freedom of speech, adding he was in favour of a “maximalist and communitarian” approach.
He recalled a columnist suggesting they hoped he would be “mugged at knife point by a gang of refugees”, adding: “I did not feel threatened or for that matter offended.
“Not only because I doubt many refugees are avid readers of his column, but because, like my predecessors, I stand here in a position of privilege – which though it makes me noticed, also confers security.”
“I welcome the Government’s moves to tackle online harms, but while we can protect those most at risk, we cannot – and should not – be trying to legislate ourselves to good behaviour.
“Dr Martin Luther King said that we cannot restrain hatred, but we can restrain haters. That is the limit of law.
“Fittingly robust and vehement debate should characterise our national life.
“Online harms bills or cancel culture being itself cancelled cannot make us obey the command to engage with opponents as people, to face them and to destroy our enemies not with forms of suppression or law but by making them our friends – that is another quote from Dr King.”
The archbishop had to pause at various points as he delivered his speech due to a cough, but he earlier insisted he had caught his granddaughter’s cold and reassured peers he had been “tested to the limits of testing”.
He added: “We hear much nonsense of the snowflake generation who seek safety.
“Younger generations are more concerned than their older counterparts about the safety and protection of minorities, and more willing to call for restrictions on speech to achieve this.
“We need to keep a sense of perspective here. No-platforming is not a new phenomenon, and there is evidence to suggest it is very limited.
“The way I can remember minorities being addressed 40 to 50 years ago shows that more concern about safety would have been good.
“Freedom of speech sometimes means freedom for the powerful to bully and abuse.”
He went on to highlight the “robust criticism”, abuse and physical threats faced by those in the Commons and the Lords, telling peers: “The anticipation of being howled down on social media is a constraint on speaking freely.
“It is not fear of being argued with, but of the abusive and threatening hecklers, in their thousands and tens of thousands.
“The setting up of fake websites, the use of hacking, the effectiveness of bots all bring the heckler’s veto from a point of irritation to a threat to sanity and stability, even to the threat of social chaos.”
Mr Welby said people’s exposure to variety is determined by “impersonal and market-driven algorithms” and all legislation and social pressure must “stand against the commodification of speech”.
He said: “When it becomes a tradable commodity, it ceases to be a freedom-building community.”
The archbishop said education is needed to cultivate the culture to encourage a “fitting speech rather than attempting to ban bad speech”.
Freedom of speech also requires respect for truth, Mr Welby said, as he criticised the “spread of misinformation by conspiracy theorists” – notably on the Covid vaccine – political agitators and hostile actors.
He added: “It’s a serious problem that big tech companies and governments must do more to tackle.”