It’s no secret that politicians have far-reaching influence. When their words could have dangerous consequences, is it ethical to curtail their freedom of speech?
In September, John Mason (MSP for Glasgow Shettleston since 2011) was issued a formal warning from the Scottish National Party (SNP) for his defence of anti-abortion protestors. In the warning from his party whips, he was accused of causing “great distress and trauma to many women” after he defended the disruptive and intrusive protests outside of abortion clinics across Scotland, choosing to equate them with vigils. In a particularly harmful statement against abortion clinics, Mason claimed on social media that “some clinics seem to be pushing abortion without laying out the pros and the cons.”
These comments were made just days after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon announced a commitment to the introduction of buffer zones surrounding abortion clinics to prevent these protests from occurring. Additionally, it’s only been a few months since the overturning of the United States Supreme Court Roe V. Wade ruling on abortion access in the USA, making the discussion about abortion rights highly topical. While freedom of speech in politics is vital to a functioning democracy, there is a debate that emerges from these situations regarding the level of free speech that should be allowed for politicians, and the ethics around limiting free speech in a democracy, especially in a world of social media.
Politicians have a duty to ensure that they represent the views of their constituents, while also working as part of their wider political party. Freedom of speech within politics is essential for the functioning of a healthy democracy, and to outright deny politicians this would be the mark of a huge democratic failure – and would have huge ethical implications, as politicians would not be able to fully scrutinise the work of governments. However, it is essential to acknowledge the level of power and influence that politicians have, and the dangers that come with having complete freedom of speech while also often having a large digital platform – a platform that can often have international influence. In this digital age, freedom of speech is no longer limited to what is said in speeches or interviews, but also includes what is posted on social media, which is where problems have arisen.
A particularly apt – if not rather extreme – example of when giving politicians freedom of speech can go too far is seen with the insurrection at the Capitol Building in January 2021, when a large group of Donald Trump supporters stormed the building. This attack was motivated by Trump, who encouraged the rumour that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from him, urging his supporters to take drastic measures. Trump even went as far to later refer to the insurrectionists as “patriots.” If Trump had some restrictions on what he was allowed to say in the public domain or had been stripped of his platform earlier, the attack may not have been as violent, and would not have led to the deaths of five people.
While John Mason speaking out about his views on abortion has not had the same drastic consequences as Trump’s comments did, it has caused upset and outrage among members of his own party, and in the wider community. He may be entitled to have his own opinion, as all politicians are, but there is a need for some restrictions on how freely views are allowed to be shared, particularly as politicians have a level of authority that leads people to trust them. Often, politicians even have the ability to build a cult following of people who will be influenced by the views shared.
To prevent freedom of speech going too far, looking to political philosopher John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle seems to provide an ethical solution. Stuart Mill states that people can act in any manner they choose, until it begins to cause harm to others. This principle could be universally applied – both in actual interviews and across social media – ensuring that the distinction between free speech and hate speech is made. If all politicians employed this principle in expressing their opinions, perhaps the spread of harmful ideas would be less prevalent, while most free speech would be allowed to continue – and politics could become a much more inclusive environment for all.