The free speech wars

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.

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‘If you’d like to understand what on earth is really going on when politicians and commentators these days pontificate about “censorship”, “cancel culture”, “no-platforming”, “safe spaces” and the rest, it’s an excellent place to start.’
Fara Dabhoiwala
The Guardian
December 2020

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