Against A Free Speech Free For All: Why The Right To Free Speech Comes With Responsibilities

Below is a transcript of a short talk I delivered at a University of Exeter Debating Society event on Friday 18th January 2019 where I argued that to protect victims of bigotry and hate, limits to free speech are not only necessary but so too right.

In an ideal world or maybe a space like this, we can debate and disagree, listen and learn largely without recrimination. With each of us being attributed five uninterrupted minutes, we can put forward our arguments in ways that may not be necessarily possible elsewhere. Because of this, it is very easy for our view of the realities of ‘free speech’ to be skewed and easily misrepresented. Let’s think then about ‘free speech’ is understood — by some — in these ‘real’ spaces.

Take for instance, the arrest and subsequent protests in support of the former EDL and PEGIDA UK leader, Stephen Yaxley-Lennon aka Tommy Robinson. While he was arrested and subsequently imprisoned — before his appeal which was upheld on the basis of procedural failings rather than his innocence — both he and his supporters preferred to suggest that he was imprisoned as a means of gagging him: to restrict his right to free speech.

Robinson was in fact jailed for committing contempt of court with a video broadcast from outside Leeds Crown Court in May 2018. The case he was discussing was subject to blanket reporting restrictions imposed under the Contempt of Court Act to ensure that three linked trials did not collapse. This made it illegal for anyone, in any format, to publish information on the case until the last trial had finished.

This then had nothing to do with the right to free speech. Instead, it was about ensuring the many victims of the abusers on trial, had the right to ensure they were brought to justice. The limiting of reporting then was rather more about necessarily protecting the rights of the victims rather than limiting the right to free speech of others.

As such, the truth of the matter was that Robinson was happy to show no respect for the country’s law and order — despite presenting himself as a ‘patriot’ — purely for his own — and his supporters — ideological cause. Both deployed ‘free speech’ as an excuse to be able to say and do exactly what they wanted to.

Now think about the #FreeTommy demonstration in central London last July. Defending Robinson’s right to free speech, the most striking image to emerge was that of protesters surrounding a bus driven by a visible Muslim woman. While doing, she had to sit and take all that those alleged to be defending free speech insulted about her religion and ethnicity while taking the time to tell her she does not belong here, was a terrorist and much more.

On any other day, that Muslim woman could have been someone who was black, lesbian, disabled, female, Jewish, gay, Asian, trans…the list goes on.

Would these defenders of free speech afford her five minutes to put a counter argument to them? Would they afford her an opportunity to engage in an informed debate? Would someone step forward to chair a Q&A session afterwards?

No. Because in the real world, some believe that defending free speech gives them the right to intimidate and harass, to be bigoted and hateful. To essentially say what they want without care or due regard and without any right to reply or recourse by those who are on the receiving end or who disagree with them. For them, free speech applies to them and those who agree with them.

As such, we have to differentiate between the right to free speech AND a free speech free for all: the right to free speech and the right to say whatever you want about whoever you want in whatever way you see fit.

Some will accuse me of endorsing ‘political correctness’ for saying this. However, the notion of PC is little more than mere myth. Claims to PC subjectively arise when someone feels they cannot say something that society or the law has deemed inappropriate, unnecessary or unwanted. It is also deployed when someone is reluctant to say something they know will make them look bigoted or just bad. It isn’t about free speech at all.

If someone disagrees, then if they could send me the official PC rule book that sets out exactly what can and cannot be said and who deemed that to be then it would be appreciated. None of you will however because it does not exist: political correctness does not exist.

Some will suggest that I am endorsing censorship, the shutting down of debates, stopping people from criticising or just disagreeing. Far from it. I have no problem whatsoever with disagreement, criticism or condemnation. My problem is with those who seek to use their disagreement, criticism or condemnation as a means of intimidating and harassing or being bigoted and hateful.

As with all rights then, the right to free speech comes with responsibility.

First, we have a responsibility to protect that right. But do please note, free speech is not an absolute right and so we have to acknowledge that it can be qualified when it conflicts with someone else’s rights or with the interest of wider society.

Second, we have a responsibility to act against those who abuse the right to free speech, for example those who use it to incite hatred.

Third, we have a responsibility to protect those who are targeted or become victims of those who abuse the right to free speech.

And this is important because in two decades of researching Islamophobia and other forms of hate, I have repeatedly seen and witnessed the very real consequences and even more real harms that hate causes. Someone’s right to ‘say what they want’ should never result in others being too scared to go outside their own home, too scared to let their children play in their gardens, too scared to go to work, or too scared to go to lectures at university. Yet this is the reality for some of those who become victim to the most explicit, bigoted and hate-fuelled manifestations of free speech. For this reason, balancing our rights with our responsibilities is not only necessary but so too the right thing to do.

To summarise. Given that some (a minority) seek to abuse the right to free speech, I believe that we have a responsibility to afford protection to those who become victim of this (another minority).

If this means curtailing or limiting the free speech of an abusive minority in order to protect a victimised minority , I believe this to be morally right. In doing so, I believe we are making society better for us, the majority hence why existing legislation puts in place something akin to the ‘curtailment’ or ‘limits’ I am arguing for here.