Real free speech is subversive, not about defending the status quo

free speech

Colin Wilson discusses recent controversies about freedom of speech.

The last few months have seen a number of discussions about “free speech”. After the Charlie Hebdo killings, the magazine’s supporters frequently justified its publication of Islamophobic and racist cartoons by reference to free speech. When protesters in January opposed Marine Le Pen speaking at the Oxford Union, the Union’s president defended their invite to the French fascist leader by explaining that the debating club “believes in the principle of freedom of speech.”

On 15 February, the Observer published a letter about attitudes to sex work and trans people: dozens of signatories included the feminist writer Bea Campbell, the LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell and many others usually associated with progressive causes. The letter claimed that comedian Kate Smurthwaite, feminist academic Germaine Greer, philosophy lecturer and Green Party activist Rupert Read and journalist Julie Bindel had faced “censorship”, “bullying” and “intimidation.” It ended with a call for “support for the basic principles of democratic political exchange.” Finally, Daniel O’Reilly is regretting his decision to retire his Dapper Laughs comedy character at the end of last year. The character was based on misogynist humour, at one point claiming that a female audience member was “gagging for a rape,” and over 60,000 people signed a successful petition calling for the show to be cancelled. According to the BBC, O’Reilly now says that “he felt his freedom of speech had been violated and believes his comedy would be treated differently now in light of the Charlie Hebdo shootings earlier this year.” He plans to bring back Dapper Laughs.

What, then, should we think of freedom of speech? We should value and defend the fact that in countries like Britain we can express our views – as on this website – without, for the most part, fearing arbitrary violence or other attacks from political enemies or the state. But in many of the examples above, freedom of speech seems to be used not to attack racism, sexism or transphobia, but rather to defend people who are attacking women, black and trans people from powerful positions like the Oxford Union, the BBC or the Guardian.


Debates about freedom of speech often take place at the level of philosophical abstraction, so it’s useful to remember the material realities of how all this speaking or writing happens. This week, for example, has seen the resignation of Peter Oborne, the chief political commentator at the Daily Telegraph. Oborne claims that the paper’s content was modified to please advertisers – journalists were discouraged, for example, from writing articles critical of HSBC or China. Journalists have suggested that the Telegraph’s owners, the Barclay brothers, influence what it prints so as to benefit their other businesses. Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Times, the Sun and Sky television, repeatedly uses these media outlets to promote his right-wing politics. The Guardian and the BBC aren’t owned by individual capitalists, but are integrated parts of capitalist society, controlled by members of its ruling class. Books are published by commercial publishers, so an uncommercial idea stands little chance of success. Gaining a position as an academic depends on postgraduate study where funding is difficult to obtain. In all these ways, while we can all speak, most people and many viewpoints are excluded from platforms where most people can hear what we have to say.

Even if we put these issues to one side and just consider the law, nowhere do people have absolute freedom of speech – all legal codes, for example, forbid libel. Leftists might oppose some legal restrictions often applied to freedom of speech, such as controls on blasphemy or obscenity. On the other hand, we would be more inclined to support other restrictions, such as those on hate speech or incitement to racist violence. So thinking about free speech in the abstract is often unhelpful. Often, we are making tactical decisions – should we campaign to stop a racist speaker, or to demand that someone is given a platform? It’s more useful to consider concrete examples, beginning with that of Marine Le Pen speaking at the Oxford Union.

Fascism, racism and Islamophobia

Le Pen is a fascist – her father, who led the French National Front before her, described the Holocaust as a “detail of history”. To allow fascists a platform in the here and now constitutes a harm to others – it legitimises racism, for example, and so increases the chances that black people will experience violence. If fascists take control of the state, the experience of the Nazis in Germany shows that all freedom of speech ends and millions of people are murdered. Giving fascists a platform is thus a misuse of freedom of speech, just an incitement to murder Jews or Muslims is an abuse of freedom of speech. It’s also mistaken to believe that one can defeat fascists by debating with them, because for fascists such debate is not about an exchange of ideas, but about gaining legitimacy while encouraging violence – by the state, by individuals or, in many cases, by organising fascist gangs on the streets, as we saw with the EDL.

As regards Charlie Hebdo, you also have to look at who gets freedom to speak, and the consequences of that speech. France is a country with a large Muslim population, who face a shocking level of racism, including state racism. Muslims account for less than ten percent of the French population, but make up over seventy percent of those in jail. Women are forbidden from wearing headscarves at schools and colleges, and from wearing face veils anywhere in public. In this context, to publish caricatures of Muhammad is not about satirising the powerful or debating ideas about religion, it’s about siding with racists who oppress Muslims.

The Observer letter

The concrete details of who gets to speak, and what effect their speech has, are also crucial to the letter in the Observer. The letter was part of a longer story, which began on 2 February with the publication of Free Speech University Rankings by the right-wing libertarians of Spiked, a group headed up by Telegraph columnist Brendan O’Neill. The rankings grouped colleges into red, amber and green categories: a SOAS policy forbidding homophobic propaganda was rated red, as was UCL Student Union’s policy of denying platforms and resources to fascists. The fact that the Student Union at King’s College London supports BDS was, for some reason, cited as a denial of freedom of speech. In college after college, policies designed to oppose racism, sexism, homophobia or transphobia – and so make the college a tolerable place for black, female or LGBT people – were condemned.

Five days later, Nick Cohen wrote an article in the Guardian which began by opposing the five hundred professors who opposed the extension of the government’s racist Prevent strategy in universities. Cohen accused the professors of hypocrisy for their defence of “debate and open discussion”, arguing that censorship was widespread on campuses, and claiming that students at Goldsmith’s college had “banned” a performance by feminist comedian Kate Smurthwaite “in an act of neurotic prudery that bordered on the insane.” A week later, the Observer letter appeared, citing the supposed banning of Smurthwaite’s gig alongside what it claimed were various other attacks on “the basic principles of democratic political exchange.”

The details of the various cases have been dealt with in detail by Sara Ahmed on her feministkilljoys blog and by Scott Long, the author of a paper bird, so let me summarise:

  • Kate Smurthwaite was not no-platformed at Goldsmith’s.
    There had been debate about whether the Feminist Society should co-host the gig, and some members were unhappy with them doing this. There was talk of an alternative gig, and one person mentioned a picket of Smurthwaite, but such a picket was never organised. Smurthwaite herself seems to have become worried that the audience would be very small, and that the organisers did not have “a plan on what to do if it kicks off.” An account by the president of the Comedy Society gives a vivid sense of the confusion and messiness.
  • Germaine Greer was not prevented from speaking at all.
    In 1996, Greer was a member of the governing body of Newnham College, Cambridge, when it appointed Rachael Padman to a fellowship, a position available only to women. Padman was a trans woman, and Greer opposed her appointment, claiming that she was not actually female. Padman – who has talked about how the ensuing publicity affected her for years – was eventually confirmed in the job, and Greer resigned. Last month, the Cambridge Union – which, like the Oxford Union, is a private debating club, not a student union – invited Greer to speak. The Students Union LGBT+ Society wrote to the Union Society expressing their concerns. The Union said they would go ahead, and the LGBT+ Society and the Women’s Society, as Sarah Brown writes in her blog, “organised a separate event featuring noted trans feminist writer, Roz Kaveney… A couple of students also handed out some leaflets to those going to the Union Society’s Greer event.”
  • Rupert Read apologised for his remarks about trans people and remains Green parliamentary candidate for Cambridge.
    The letter claims that the Green Party was put under pressure to repudiate Read “after he questioned the arguments put forward by some trans-activists.” Read had, as Sarah Brown puts it, “got into something of a kerfuffle” after making various confused and offensive remarks about trans people – whether trans women were really women, who gets to use women’s toilets, and who should decide on these things. When people objected, he withdrew his remarks, producing first a clumsy apology which only made everything worse, and then a better one. You get the impression that Read, a philosophy academic, stumbled into a debate on a subject he really didn’t understand. In any case, to again quote Sarah Brown, “telling a politician that you thought something they said was out of order, and you’re not going to vote for them as a result, is not ‘silencing’ and it’s not ‘intimidation’.”
  • Far from being silenced, Julie Bindel writes regularly for the Guardian.
    Bindel is part of a generation of 1980s radical feminists, which also includes Janice Raymond and Sheila Jeffreys, who see the world as divided into monolithic blocs of men on the one hand and women on the other, and see it as their duty to police this gender binary. Bindel has expressed these beliefs using violently transphobic language, so it’s no surprise that NUS LGBT campaign has said it wants nothing to do with her. This has not led to Bindel being “censored” – the Guardian currently publishes a piece by her every couple of weeks.

The Observer letter is, then, nonsense, and it’s good to see that the Guardian has published a response to it signed by over two hundred people. It’s a truly bizarre example of thwarted privilege to see people who speak at the Cambridge Union or write regularly in a national newspaper claim that they have been silenced – just as it is to see Dapper Laughs complain that his rights have been violated, not because he has been tortured or jailed, but because his TV show has been cancelled. Nor is defending trans people the real threat to political discussion in universities – the most significant threat comes from the government’s Islamophobic Prevent agenda, which will, the Guardian reports, “require the speeches of visiting speakers to be vetted in advance.”

What conclusions can we come to? I think we have to conclude that freedom of speech is an ambivalent concept which can be mobilised politically in a variety of ways, some of which undermine racism, sexism or corporate power, and some of which reinforce them. That ambivalence reflects the political context in which such liberal ideas developed in the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. One the one hand, it was a step forward that ideas were no longer completely controlled by the state or the church – as was the situation before the French Revolution, for example, when every book published had to be approved by the King. But what then developed was a society in which “public opinion” was mostly controlled by the market. Authors had previously had to find an aristocratic patron to get into print – now they had to convince a publisher that their book would sell. And so the ideas which dominated society remained under the control of the ruling class, who after all owned the newspapers, controlled the universities and so on, as they do today.

Asked what he thought of Western civilisation, Gandhi is often reported to have said that he thought it would be a good idea. I think we’re in favour of freedom of speech on the same basis – that hearing the views of all members of society, regardless of their class, gender, race, sexuality and so forth would be something to be welcomed, indeed something to fight for. But it is not something that has happened yet, certainly not in Britain. Fighting for real free speech is a subversive act, part of fighting for socialism – not about defending the status quo.


  1. “Even if we put these issues to one side and just consider the law, nowhere do people have absolute freedom of speech – all legal codes, for example, forbid libel.”

    That’s a whole debate in itself. It’s absolutely true. Nowhere does it exist, nowhere really can it really exist and Spiked doesn’t really define the parameters are, because even Spiked nods to the masses of caveats, not least contempt of court and disclosure rules – so when Spiked says absolute free speech, no ifs, no buts, it might help if it defined what it perceives to be absolute. Their definition differs from mine.

    I would agree with the article that much of what we see is less to do with an attack on free speech, more pernicious tactical way of frustrating political agendas. That’s a ugly cultural development but these silly little games on campus are largely irrelevant to everyday debate and discourse, where a whole host of free and frank adult debates go on unimpeded but if you go fishing for idiots, you’ll always catch one.

    Personally I don’t thin there is such a thing as absolute free speech. Absolutes are for teenagers. If you have a controversial point to make it can still be made if done with skill. Half the skill of communicating controversial ideas is approaching your audience on their ground and bringing them along with you. Unsubtle trolling will just provoke a mostly pointless argument that add very little value to public discourse.

  2. It’s funny that you think “abstract” is some kind of shortcoming. Rights are abstract, or, what means the same thing, universal.
    When you call for equality, or for equal rights, you are making an abstraction from specific circumstances.
    The opposite of abstract in this context, is *privilege* – which can only serve inequality.
    The case against “abstract” free speech is the one that fears that the public are too stupid to tell a good argument from a bad one.
    It is intrinsically elitist.

  3. The content of what is being said and by who is at the root of defending freedom of speech. Abstract calls for the defence of “free speech” as a concept rather than as a social relation and manifestation of class struggle plays right into the hands of the establishment. The enemy or “experts”, as James labels them, are anyone who disagrees with the abstract definition of free speech promoted by his own coterie of libertarian experts. The ludicrous proportions and utterly offensive consequences of this logic becomes clear when survivors of the Holocaust protesting against the fascists are portrayed as restricting free speech. Rather than defending the marginalised and the oppressed, abstract calls for free speech empowers their oppressors.

  4. “But in many of the examples above, freedom of speech seems to be used not to attack racism, sexism or transphobia, but rather to defend people who are attacking women, black and trans people from powerful positions like the Oxford Union, the BBC or the Guardian.”
    It is in the nature of free speech that it is expressed in many different and contradictory ways. That you don’t agree with what is being said is not really the point. The rights that are held up in the idea of free speech are not just those of the speakers, but also the listeners. The understanding is that the public are the best-placed to pass judgment on ideas, rather than having them pre-filtered for them by ‘experts’.


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