Free Speech in Peril


October, 2018

  • Attempts to curtail free speech are not only occurring ‘over there’ in Russia, China or the Middle East, but in the liberal-democracies of the West.
  • Whether on university campuses or in society-at-large, censorship is being justified in the name of protecting vulnerable groups from offense.
  • Freedom of expression is the bedrock of any democratic society; that it is in peril should worry us all.

‘The best way to vanquish hateful ideas is not to ban them but to challenge them in an open debate.’

The belief that certain words and thoughts are unacceptable, unthinkable, and unutterable is the dominant narrative of our times. From European hate-speech laws to online censorship and no-platforming at universities, free speech is facing serious challenges across the Western world.

Some of the most strident assaults on free speech are occurring at universities. Students are banning controversial speakers, tabloid newspapers and words they consider harmful. Manchester University Students’ Union recently hit the headlines for banning clapping at its events, to be replaced with the more ‘inclusive’ jazz hands. In 2015, human rights activist Maryam Namazie was barred from speaking at the University of Warwick for criticising Islam. In 2014, Oxford students shut down a debate on abortion because the two speakers were men (who you are now dictates what you can discuss).

These are not just a few anomalies; censorship has become commonplace on campuses in Britain, Canada and the US. The Spiked ‘University Free Speech Rankings’ (2018) found that 54% of British universities actively censor speech. Universities should foster debate and the free exchange of ideas; today, they have become hostile environments for unconventional thinking and unpopular ideas.

Banning offensive speech is not unique to our universities. Governments, and institutions such as the EU, have justified censorship by arguing that it is necessary to protect vulnerable groups from various forms of prejudice. In June last year, Germany passed a law criminalising ‘hate speech’ on social media sites. The law also obliged social media networks to remove ‘fake news’ from their websites or face a fine of up to 50 million euros. Many other countries – such as France, the Netherlands and Finland – ban ‘insulting’ or ‘defamatory’ speech.

Today, the saying goes ‘I believe in free speech, but’…not for offensive, racist, sexist or homophobic speech. However, defending free speech means defending the right to speak of those with whom you disagree. If you add a ‘but’ you are not qualifying free speech but negating it.

Those who would rather ban offensive ideas than engage with them show a lack of confidence in their own arguments. Refusing to ban offensive ideas does not mean giving them a free pass. In 2009, BBC’s Question Time invited Nick Griffin, the then leader of the far-right British National Party (BNP), to speak on its panel. Many criticised the BBC for giving Griffin a platform to spout his racist ideas, but his fellow panellists challenged his arguments and the BNP’s support soon plummeted. The best way to vanquish hateful ideas is not to ban them but to challenge them in an open debate.

While you may not always change your opponent’s mind in a debate, you may change the minds of the people listening. Furthermore, understanding the other sides’ argument, and engaging in debate, is fundamental to developing your own ideas. Without freedom of speech, we cannot test our ideas or decide whether they stand up to a robust argument.

Banning certain speech is also counter-productive because it draws attention to the ideas you are trying to suppress. Warwick University’s PPE society recently invited Anne Marie Waters, founder and leader of the anti-Islam party for Britain, to give a talk on culture and free speech. The ensuing calls to rescind the invitation drew attention to the event and probably led many students who had little prior knowledge of Waters to find out more about her ideas.

Those who favour hate-speech legislation argue that allowing the expression of hateful views will stir up hatred in society and lead others to commit acts of violence. They have a low opinion of their fellow citizens, who they assume only have to hear someone spouting hatred to go out and commit acts of violence. Defending free speech means trusting people to hear all points of view and then make up their own minds about what is right and wrong. It means treating others as rational, thinking adults.

Terms such as ‘hateful’, ‘insulting’ and ‘offensive’ are subjective. What one person finds offensive might be someone else’s deeply held belief. Who should decide what is and is not hateful? Once we cede authority to the state to decide the parameters of acceptable speech, we have given up our most fundamental freedom. It is far better to hear a few unpalatable ideas than to have the government decide for us what we can and cannot say.


Written by Tanya Kekic. Edited by Abdi Buwe.


*This article represents the views of the author*

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