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A group of 138 journalists, academics, technologists, celebrities, authors, activists, public intellectuals and thought leaders this month signed a declaration calling on the government, tech companies and the public to protect free speech and open discourse.
Prominent signatories include WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, whistleblower Edward Snowden, actor and filmmaker Tim Robbins, filmmaker Oliver Stone, journalist Glenn Greenwald, psychologist Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, comedian John Cleese, biologist Richard Dawkins, DPhil, DSc, Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, Ph.D., and Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker, Ph.D.
The authors of the Westminster Declaration, which warns of “increasing international censorship that threatens to erode centuries-old democratic norms,” wrote:
“Coming from the left, right, and centre, we are united by our commitment to universal human rights and freedom of speech, and we are all deeply concerned about attempts to label protected speech as ‘misinformation,’ ‘disinformation,’ and other ill-defined terms.”
Also among the signatories were people who publicly criticized official COVID-19 counternarratives, including Jay Bhattacharya, M.D., Ph.D., Martin Kulldorff, Ph.D., Dr. Aaron Kheriaty and Dr. Robert Malone, pioneer and expert in mRNA and DNA vaccines and therapies.
Catherine Austin Fitts, publisher of The Solari Report and former U.S. assistant secretary of housing and urban development, also signed the declaration. She told The Defender the declaration “communicates the widespread commitment to free speech of journalists and publishers around the world and the covenant we share to protect and support transparency.”
The declaration states:
“This abuse of these terms [‘misinformation,’ ‘disinformation’] has resulted in the censorship of ordinary people, journalists, and dissidents in countries all over the world.
“Such interference with the right to free speech suppresses valid discussion about matters of urgent public interest, and undermines the foundational principles of representative democracy.”
I talked to BBC #PoliticsLive about the #WestminsterDeclaration. You don’t improve democracy by militantly labelling speech as misinformation. @shellenberger @toadmeister @MrWinMarshall pic.twitter.com/MvI0FqU4cl
— Laura Dodsworth (@BareReality) October 18, 2023
The declaration cites domestic and international law, including the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), and specific instances where free speech rights, including speech made by some of the signatories, have been threatened by public and private actors in many countries.
According to the declaration, legal protections for free speech are being eroded by new legislation aiming to combat purported “misinformation” and “disinformation,” and by private entities, such as social media platforms and “fact-checkers,” who operate without any democratic accountability.
Pushing back against the ‘censorship-industrial complex’
The Westminster Declaration resulted from a meeting of “free speech champions from around the world” who met in Westminster, London, at the end of June 2023.
The declaration, which was delivered to the office of U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, states that a “censorship-industrial complex” consisting of public, private and academic actors, is “increasingly working to monitor citizens and rob them of their voices.”
‘Entities named as part of the “censorship-industrial complex” included the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which was implicated in several “Twitter Files” releases, and “‘disinformation experts’ and ‘fact-checkers’ in the mainstream media, who have abandoned the journalistic values of debate and intellectual inquiry.”
According to the declaration:
“Although foreign disinformation between states is a real issue, agencies designed to combat these threats, such as the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency in the United States, are increasingly being turned inward against the public.
“Under the guise of preventing harm and protecting truth, speech is being treated as a permitted activity rather than an inalienable right.”
Fitts described such actors as “a secret governance system that is financially dependent on organized crime and war and is moving to complete control of financial transactions.”
According to the declaration, “large-scale coordinated efforts” to conduct censorship” which often operate “through direct government policies.”
The declaration cited several examples of such policies, including the U.K.’s Online Safety Bill, Australia’s Combating Misinformation and Disinformation Bill, Ireland’s Hate Speech Bill, and Scotland’s Hate Crime and Public Order Bill, as examples of legislative attempts which “threaten to severely restrict expression and create a chilling effect.”
“Authorities in India and Turkey have seized the power to remove political content from social media,” the declaration adds, while “The legislature in Germany and the Supreme Court in Brazil are criminalizing political speech.”
Social media platforms ‘silenced lawful opinions’
The declaration accused the censorship-industrial complex of operating “through more subtle methods” than direct government intervention, including “visibility filtering, labelling, and manipulation of search engine results.”
“Through deplatforming and flagging, social media censors have already silenced lawful opinions on topics of national and geopolitical importance,” the declaration states, adding that this has been accomplished “with the full support of ‘disinformation experts’ and ‘fact-checkers.’”
The declaration cited the EU’s Digital Services Act, which “will formalise this relationship by giving platform data to ‘vetted researchers’ from NGOs and academia, relegating our speech rights to the discretion of these unelected and unaccountable entities.”
“As the Twitter Files revealed, tech companies often perform censorial ‘content moderation’ in coordination with government agencies and civil society,” the declaration stated, adding that “end-to-end encrypted messaging apps” such as WhatsApp, Signal and Telegram are now being targeted by the same entities.
“If end-to-end encryption is broken, we will have no remaining avenues for authentic private conversations in the digital sphere,” the declaration said.
Dissidents ‘paying a price for raising tough questions’
Writing on Substack, several of the journalists behind the release of the “Twitter Files,” including Shellenberger and Taibbi, referenced their March testimony to Congress on the existence of a “Censorship Industrial Complex comprised of government agencies, non-governmental organizations, and Big Tech companies working together to suppress disfavored views and disfavored people.”
Yet, the authors claimed, “At that hearing and ever since, elected members of Congress, the mainstream news media, and the NGOs have argued that there is no Censorship Complex, just people doing research into and trying to correct misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation.”
Toby Young, director of the Free Speech Union and a signatory of the declaration, told The Epoch Times that the declaration is “an attempt by a group of people who value free speech to push back against a new and growing rationale for censorship, which is to protect people from misinformation, disinformation, malinformation, and hate speech.
“We believe that, in the words of the Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, the best remedy for bad speech is ‘more speech, not enforced silence,’” Young added.
Israeli journalist and signatory Efrat Fenigson, in her Substack article about the declaration, described herself as “a dissident voice to many of the mainstream narratives.” She said she’s “paying a price for raising tough questions and for speaking out.”
Fenigson wrote that people need to strive for truth even when it’s inconvenient, and educate themselves about “history, global powers, local and corporate interests.” Without this knowledge, she said, “We’re blind to manipulation, apathetic to its consequences on us, and are doomed to keep playing in the matrix without being aware of it.”
Fenigson said, “In the face of unspeakable atrocities, where people suffer, are exploited, and victimized, it becomes our moral duty to speak out for those who can’t or won’t, highlighting needed information to improve their circumstances.”
‘Truth must be discovered through dialogue and debate’
According to the declaration, robust protections for freedom of speech and open discourse exist in the U.S. and in international law — but these protections are now also under threat.
“The U.S. First Amendment is a strong example of how the right to freedom of speech, of the press, and of conscience can be firmly protected under the law,” the declaration states, describing this as “a vital ‘first liberty’ from which all other liberties follow.”
“It is only through free speech that we can denounce violations of our rights and fight for new freedoms,” the declaration states.
U.S. government policies that have allegedly resulted in censorship of online speech, including COVID-19 counternarratives, are being challenged on the basis of the First Amendment in several ongoing lawsuits, including Missouri et al. v. Biden et al. and Kennedy et al. v. Biden et al. The two cases were consolidated in July.
The Westminster Declaration also cites the UDHR, which “was drafted in 1948 in response to atrocities committed during World War II,” as another example of how protections for free speech are legally enshrined.
The declaration specifically cites Article 19 of the UDHR, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.’”
According to the declaration:
“As is made clear by Article 19, the corollary of the right to free speech is the right to information. In a democracy, no one has a monopoly over what is considered to be true. Rather, truth must be discovered through dialogue and debate — and we cannot discover truth without allowing for the possibility of error.
“While there may be a need for governments to regulate some aspects of social media, such as age limits, these regulations should never infringe on the human right to freedom of expression.”
Francis Boyle, J.D., Ph.D., professor of international law at the University of Illinois, said there are more provisions of international law which also protect free speech, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966.
Boyle told The Defender that the covenant “is the international implementing legislation for the UDHR,” adding that “It has strong protections for freedom of speech and is a binding treaty that can be argued in the courts of its contracting parties.”
‘Open discourse is the central pillar of a free society’
The signatories of the Westminster Declaration argue that free speech includes protecting the right to speech that may be offensive to some:
“We recognize that words can sometimes cause offence, but we reject the idea that hurt feelings and discomfort, even if acute, are grounds for censorship. Open discourse is the central pillar of a free society, and is essential for holding governments accountable, empowering vulnerable groups, and reducing the risk of tyranny.
“Speech protections are not just for views we agree with; we must strenuously protect speech for the views that we most strongly oppose. Only in the public square can these views be heard and properly challenged.”
The declaration points out that “time and time again, unpopular opinions and ideas have eventually become conventional wisdom.”
Far from promoting a prevalence of misinformation and disinformation, the declaration argues that free speech, and the robust debate it fosters, provides the best safeguard against such information.
“By labelling certain political or scientific positions as ‘misinformation’ or ‘malinformation,’ our societies risk getting stuck in false paradigms that will rob humanity of hard-earned knowledge and obliterate the possibility of gaining new knowledge. Free speech is our best defence against disinformation,” the declaration states.
On this basis, and “For the sake of human welfare and flourishing,” the declaration’s signatories made three calls to action, including:
- Calling upon “governments and international organisations to fulfill their responsibilities to the people and to uphold Article 19 of the UDHR.”
- Calling upon “tech corporations to undertake to protect the digital public sphere as defined in Article 19 of the UDHR and refrain from politically motivated censorship, the censorship of dissenting voices, and censorship of political opinion.”
- Calling upon “the general public to join us in the fight to preserve the people’s democratic rights.”
“Legislative changes are not enough. We must also build an atmosphere of free speech from the ground up by rejecting the climate of intolerance that encourages self-censorship and that creates unnecessary personal strife for many. Instead of fear and dogmatism, we must embrace inquiry and debate,” the declaration states.
“Censorship in the name of ‘preserving democracy’ inverts what should be a bottom-up system of representation into a top-down system of ideological control. This censorship is ultimately counter-productive: it sows mistrust, encourages radicalization, and de-legitimizes the democratic process,” it added.
Fitts told The Defender she hopes the Westminster Declaration will “inspire millions of people around the world to recommit to share this covenant with us,” noting that there are many actions that “individuals, families, community groups, state legislators, officials and investors” can take in such a direction.
“The more who read and share the declaration, the more powerful the commitment we share to free speech and freedom becomes,” Fitts said.
Describing the “attack on speech” as a “crisis of humanity,” the declaration states that “Every equality and justice campaign in history has relied on an open forum to voice dissent,” citing the civil rights movement and the abolition of slavery as key examples.
Conversely, the declaration states that throughout history, “attacks on free speech have been a precursor to attacks on all other liberties.”
According to the declaration:
“Regimes that eroded free speech have always inevitably weakened and damaged other core democratic structures. In the same fashion, the elites that push for censorship today are also undermining democracy. What has changed though, is the broad scale and technological tools through which censorship can be enacted.
“We stand for your right to ask questions. Heated arguments, even those that may cause distress, are far better than no arguments at all. We do not want our children to grow up in a world where they live in fear of speaking their minds. We want them to grow up in a world where their ideas can be expressed, explored and debated openly.”