How did we get here and why does it matter?

This book asks who gets to exercise free speech and who does not, and examines what happens when powerful voices think they have been silenced. It asks how the spaces and structures of 'speech' – mass media, the lecture theatre, the public event, the political rally and perhaps most frequently the internet – shape this debate. It explores the long histories of this contemporary moment, to think about how acts such as censorship, boycotts and protests around free speech developed historically and how these histories inform the present. The book first explores two opposing sides in this debate: starting with a defence of speech freedoms and examining how speech has been curbed and controlled, and countering this with an examination of the way that free speech has been weaponised and deployed as a bad faith argument by people wishing to commit harm. It then considers two key battlefields in the free speech wars: first, the university campus and secondly, the internet. This book is the first to explore this moment in the free speech wars. It hopes to equip readers to navigate this complex, highly charged topic: rather than taking a side in the debate, it encourages the reader to be suspicious – or at least sceptical – of the way that this topic is being framed and articulated in the media today. The free speech wars should act as context, provocation, stimulation and – hopefully – a route through this conflict.

‘Free speech’ and the rights of trans and non-binary people on university campuses
Grace Lavery

In 2018 the New York Times reported that the Department of Health and Human Services was planning to rewrite Title IX guidelines to define an individual’s sex as ‘the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate’. The purpose, evidently, was to abolish the idea of trans people by executive fiat. Meanwhile, some academics have attempted to frame the practice of deadnaming trans academics and students as a question of ‘academic freedom’. This chapter responds in order to attempt to establish a baseline protocol for scholarly discourse with trans and non-binary students and faculty – both in research and in teaching – and to encourage other faculty to sign on to such a protocol. That protocol is: no, deadnaming and misgendering are not acceptable scholarly practices, and no, they are not covered by the principle of academic freedom.

in The free speech wars
Edson Burton
Emma Harvey

Recently in Bristol, the rights and liberties of LGBT+ communities have collided with the traditions and beliefs of, predominantly, faith communities. On social media the narrative has quickly become polarised. At a time when strong leadership feels critical yet absent, politicians and programmers point to one another to take responsibility for regulation. The discourse continues to play out in the everyday and communities who look to statutory and sector agencies for clarity have been left confused, frustrated and wanting. Using scenarios that have arisen within our inner-city community arts centre as case studies, this chapter explores the everyday challenges of intersectionality approaches in defining and defending free speech. Drawing on influences including programmer and activist Richard Stallman’s distinction between ‘free’ and ‘open’, we seek to establish a set of ‘Free Speech Principles’ to assist in navigating intersectional contradictions of the Equality Act 2010. Analysing examples of ‘free speech’ within today’s political and social media landscape and comparing these to historical examples of civil rights movements that have disrupted traditional power structures, it asks if today’s weaponisation of free speech is free at all and explores what might be missing of the human among the law and the algorithm. Finally, it refines the principles of our programmers and lawmakers to provide greater clarity for everyday discourse, hoping to develop a simple toolkit for clarifying how organisations and programmers might respond in order to uphold our collective freedom of expression.

in The free speech wars
Abstract only
Charlotte Lydia Riley

This introduction sets out some of the key critical questions that will be explored in this book, and offers a framing for the broader debate, which focuses on the balancing of free speech rights and the ways in which free speech rights are increasingly invoked to try to defend speech or behaviour that should be critiqued or challenged. The introduction first examines the legal and constitutional right to ‘free speech’, as defended in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the defence of which is critical to democracy and free political expression around the world. It then explores the ways in which ‘freedom of speech’ has often taken on a blurrier, more nebulous meaning, which is as much to do with asserting freedom from criticism as it is with defending the right to freedom from censorship by governments. It then introduces some of the key spaces and concepts around which freedom of speech arguments have coalesced – notably ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no-platforming’ vs. ideas about ‘hate speech’ and ‘political correctness’. The introduction finishes with a more personal reflection on the questions around free speech: who gets to make these claims, whose rights are defended by institutions, and what sort of speech is tolerated within the bounds of free speech and what is seen as off limits.

in The free speech wars
Andrew Phemister

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.

in The free speech wars
Nina Lyon

This chapter examines the use of irony and nonsense in the contemporary political battlefield, from Twitter and Netflix comedy specials to the self-satirising turn of broadsheet journalism. When faced with the conflicting desires of wanting to say something that we suspect will be received as problematic while also escaping censure for it, we can choose not to say it, to say it straight and take the consequences, or to try to fudge it: to say and not-say it. The problem with the latter option is that the contradiction it entails will run the risk of being noticed. One way of navigating contradictory statements is to frame them within irony: we often find humour in paradox, and by asserting something as a joke, or more subtly couching it in an ironic tone, so that you can never be entirely sure what is meant within that style of discourse, the intention behind speech is blurred. A Trumpian technique entails going further still, embracing nonsense in a series of apparently conflicting propositions. Many commentators currently bemoan the ‘postmodernism’ that apparently besets public discourse, seeking to negate and immolate positive assertions about the world. But there is nothing intrinsically postmodern, or even new, about any of this. Since Petronius, Nero’s aesthetic advisor, wrote the Satyricon bemoaning the cultural downfall of Rome while simultaneously revelling in it, playing with illogic and the surreal has been a literary tactic common to times of change.

in The free speech wars
The past, present and future of Speakers’ Corner
Edward Packard

With a particular focus on the origins of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park in the mid-nineteenth century, this chapter describes how individuals first carved out this enduring space for public speech and how, from the beginning, it included platforms advocating controversial political and religious opinions. The process of ‘creating’ Speakers’ Corner involved a complex relationship between the forces of authority (including government agencies) and the park’s users. It invited still-relevant questions about access, ownership and use of public space. Nineteenth-century governments vacillated between suppressing controversial speakers in Hyde Park or tolerating them as a form of democratic safety valve. Indeed, despite its popular image as a site of free speech, Speakers’ Corner has always been tightly controlled from above, whether tacitly through the belittling of what is said there, or explicitly through official regulation. In this regard, this chapter concludes that the key lesson from the history of Speakers’ Corner is not to focus on the preservation of the site in its current state, but to continue the struggle to protect individual rights to speak, listen and debate in public spaces.

in The free speech wars
Adam Standring and Daniel Cardoso

In 2017 a right-wing student organisation, Nova Portugalidade, invited the controversial figure Jaime Nogueira Pinto to speak at the famously left-wing Faculty of Human and Social Sciences of the New University of Lisbon. Nogueira Pinto is perhaps best known nationally for his defence of the dictator António Salazar on the television programme The Greatest Portuguese, as well as publishing polemical texts on Portuguese colonialism and Islam. The ensuing withdrawal of a platform for Nogueira Pinto by the Faculty’s director, in response to pressure from the students’ association, resulted in protests, counter-protests and threats of violence, and opened up a national conversation on the pros and cons of ‘no-platforming’ that elicited comment from public figures up to and including the President of the Republic. The Portuguese case is indicative of the way that extremist politics is dependent, in nascent culture wars, on mainstream media and politics to amplify its message. Among the reasons for the transformation of a local dispute between students into a national controversy was the role played by right-wing pundits writing in Observador, a national newspaper, and by the extreme-right party, PNR (National Renovator Party), in attracting the attention and comment of mainstream media and pundits.

in The free speech wars
Jordan Peterson, the alt-right and neo-fascism
Ben Whitham

Jordan Peterson is a central figure in the so-called ‘culture wars’. Lumping together 'postmodern neo-Marxists', feminists, queer theorists and transgender rights activists as the ‘social justice warrior' blob he stands against, Peterson has become a poster boy of the transnational far right. This chapter tackles Peterson’s conceptualisation of his enemies head-on, arguing that he identifies something real: unity among diverse critical traditions in our opposition to ‘free speech’. ‘Postmodern neo-Marxists’ may be an oxymoron, given the well-documented animosity between these two intellectual movements. But what postmodernists (or poststructuralists), Marxists, feminists, and gender and queer theorists share in common is a belief that the ways in which we theorise, explain and act in our world must stem from actual social practices rather than abstract, ahistorical principles. Whereas the ‘alt-right’ depicts a right to free speech as a universal principle, endogenous to ‘Western civilisation’, in practice it has always and everywhere been strictly limited. And so it goes today – not least in the culture wars, where, for example, women of colour calling out racism are routinely ‘shut down’ for ‘incivility’. A guide to free speech politics in the age of Peterson, this chapter shows how inescapably raced, classed and gendered the exclusionary practice of ‘free speech’ really is, and what this tells us about liberalism’s inadequacy in responding to neo-fascism.

in The free speech wars
The case of libraries
Sam Popowich

‘Intellectual freedom’ is considered one of the core values of librarianship, and is the equivalent of free speech/free expression in other domains. However, intellectual freedom has always been equated with the professional ‘neutrality’ of libraries, and while there has always been a tension in the profession between intellectual freedom and social responsibility, the recent increase in politicisation of free speech has made the purported neutrality of libraries and intellectual freedom a site of political and cultural debate. In 2018 the American Library Association approved changes to an interpretation of its room-booking policy to explicitly allow hate groups to use public library spaces, setting off a major debate within librarianship over freedom of speech and no-platforming. The debate essentially revolved around hate groups gaining legitimacy or credibility by using public library spaces to proclaim their message, the question of supporting hate groups’ rights over the rights of users and staff who may feel targeted by hate speech, and the question of how the public library can or should adjudicate between competing rights. The language change was eventually reversed, but this has only postponed a resolution of the underlying contradictions within the library profession. This chapter begins by laying out the basic positions on the room-booking policy, but then broadens out to situate ‘intellectual freedom’ within librarianship’s hegemonic liberalism and offer a radical alternative vision for libraries in today’s highly polarised political culture. It then suggests that libraries need to abandon a pretence of neutrality and opt instead for a commitment to social justice. This commitment would enable libraries to escape from the paradox which a commitment to an abstract, neutral, intellectual freedom has placed them in.

in The free speech wars