Is boycotting for or against free speech?
in The free speech wars
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Many of the recent claims of silencing and censorship from the political right have actually centred on the legitimacy of boycotting. Calls for boycotts, whether effective or not, are frequently derided as attempts to restrict free speech. Yet in America at least, boycotts are protected under the First Amendment, the right to boycott being itself a right to free speech. For those who make such claims of social censorship, often under the mantle of ‘classical liberalism’ or libertarianism, this poses a rather obvious conundrum: is boycotting an example of or a hindrance to ‘free speech’. But the problem is not a new one. The history of the tactic reveals that the befuddlement of the modern ‘classical liberal’ has its historical antecedents. The purpose of this chapter is to compare the reaction to the boycott among late nineteenth-century Anglo-American liberals, and their struggle to condemn such free non-violent actions within their political framework, with the responses of modern-day conservative and libertarian voices. Both are marked by incomprehension and inconsistency, and, just as in the late nineteenth century, contemporary critics often turn to the accusation of ‘irrationality’. Then as now, such claims feed a deep hostility towards the idea of democracy itself.

The free speech wars

How did we get here and why does it matter?


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