The Importance of Free Speech: A Real-World Illustration.

“The last 20 years have been distressing. Where I’ve not been allowed to speak or be myself.” — Zelda Perkins

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, a number of women have surfaced recounting stories of sexual harassment or abuse — stories which many of them felt unable to talk about before, convinced they wouldn’t be believed. Zelda Perkins’ very well articulated story, one which she was forbidden by NDA to discuss openly, particularly caught my attention because it illustrates in a very real way the importance of being able to speak freely.

There’s a lot of talk in the EU at the moment around free speech, especially online. Legislators are looking for ways to prevent hate speech and terrorist content from being propagated. The question is, how do we effectively distinguish between censoring ‘bad’ speech and ‘acceptable’ speech?

In the case of internet intermediaries like Youtube and eBay, ‘censorship’ would come in the form of imposing an obligation to filter content uploaded, in order to curtail user infringement. This measure, currently being debated in the EU parliament, is heavily pushed for by the copyright industries and strongly opposed by legal academics and technology companies.

The debate is naturally coloured by business incentives. Of course, the music and film industries stand to gain financially from more control over content uploaded online, therefore lobby for it, without necessarily considering how this would impact ordinary people’s rights. Similarly, the Googles of the world are opposing new filtering measures because it might cost them users or money to implement additional measures. Neither side is transparent about it’s motives, and indeed they make philanthropic claims about ‘the crippling of technological innovation’ (tech) or ‘the threat to the future of music’ (entertainment).

All things aside, the central question is; how important is free speech? Why does it need protecting?

I’d say we all know to some extent that it’s important, but how many of us can really explain why or how without reciting textbooks? I dare say many of us take our freedom of expression for granted. I came across this BBC interview with Harvey Weinstein’s former assistant Zelda Perkins, and it struck me that her story really illustrates the importance of being able to speak out, and the damaging effects of being silenced and not having ones formative experiences validated.

Background: Zelda Perkins was Harvey Weinstein’s assistant for 4 years or so. In the late 90s Weinstein attempted to rape her colleague and together, Perkins and her colleague quit their jobs and began legal proceedings in the hope of holding him accountable (NB it is stressed that monetary compensation was not the motive of the pursuit). They refused to accept a damages settlement, however they quickly realised that the law couldn’t help them and after extensive fighting, crumbled. Perkins finally signed a non-disclosure agreement which prevented her from speaking about her experience. She had to bury her trauma. In her words:

Everybody, when they talk to me about [the ongoing press coverage and lawsuits against Weinstein], they say it must be very distressing for you. The one thing it isn’t is distressing. The last 20 years have been distressing. Where I’ve not been allowed to speak or be myself. And not just for me, for lots of women who’ve not been able to own their past and for many of them, their trauma. I think I’ve realised that actually it was much more traumatic than I realised at the time, because the freedom of being able to speak, and being validated, and being able to now see that I wasn’t mad, that this was wrong — this is wrong, this is right — and that although the process I went through was legal, it was immoral.” Source

This account is a striking illustration of the importance of free speech, not just for democracy but for our collective mental health and well-being.

Written by

Working at Believe, licensing and managing relations with digital music platforms. LLM Intellectual Property Law.

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