Freedom of speech: not what you think it is

As many readers of this blog will know, in 2014-15 I worked full-time as the elected Vice President of Edinburgh University Students’ Association. This blog therefore comes very much from that perspective although it was written it in a personal capacity.

Cast a cursory eye over the Google results for ‘student unions’ and you’d be forgiven for thinking we were the second coming of the fascist state, with coverage condemning everything from decisions not to host Dapper Laughs or stock The Sun Newspaper to the banning of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and Oxford Debates’ Union’s cancelling of an abortion ‘debate’ consisting of an entirely male panel. The far-right end of the spectrum goes so far as to argue that policies in favour of safe space and recognising the gender identity of trans students are an assault on freedom of expression, when the irony is that the opposite is almost certainly – and, in the case of the latter, literally – true. The decisions of unions not to use their own time, resources and space giving a platform to messages which are fundamentally against their values is criticised widely as an attempt to shut down freedom of speech on campus. Because as J.S. Mill would say, ‘to be truly free is to be able to listen to Robin Thicke, not on one’s own personal headphones, but from a centrally located speaker’.

To pre-empt the middle-aged white man I can see in my mind’s eye, finger over keyboard, poised to school me on Mill and my first-world problems, I raise you my First class Social Sciences degree and the fact that I’m not entirely convinced that the words of a long-dead old white man should be taken as sacred gospel anyway. But that’s not even the point, because nothing I say in this blog contradicts Mill’s theory in the first place; he defines the principle of free speech as a means for civil society to hold the privileged and powerful to account without fear of repercussion, and that is something of which I am whole-heartedly in favour.

There are some things which freedom of speech is not, though. The right to a platform, for one. If Dapper Laughs rocked up at my office and told me – or more realistically, my male colleague – that he simply must perform on our stage to our students, and be advertised by our Marketing team using our resources in our outlets, I’d laugh in his face. Likewise, if our Commercial Director suggested we change the product range in a particular shop to test out chocolate chip cookies instead of raspberry ones, you wouldn’t catch me filibustering the Trustee Board and chaining myself to the door of the Trading Committee in protest at the flagrant censorship of raspberry cookies.

Freedom of speech is also not the right to cause harm or distress to someone. After laughing in his face, I’d probably take great pleasure in explaining to Dapper Laughs that he is a misogynist and a threat to the safety of women students and that the door is this way, thanks, and the bin is just outside it. And fundamentally, the right to your own free speech does not mean the right to limit the free speech of others, which is what oppressive language and behaviour does; further marginalising those already underrepresented, scaring them out of speaking, muffling their voices down to a faint hum in the background while you continue to shout.

This is precisely the power imbalance which we seek to redress when we enact no platform policies or influence the control we have over our limited resources to prioritise media and events that everyone can enjoy over those which might cause considerable distress to some. Because debate doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of inequality and oppression where some voices are already hugely privileged over others. When a post on this blog was vaguely successful and I inevitably received violent and misogynistic threats from men, I stayed awake all night jumping at every noise; when my predecessors at EUSA banned Robin Thicke’s rape anthem Blurred Lines on campus, I doubt he lost any sleep unless it was because he was too busy counting all the money made from having the biggest selling single of 2014. Likewise, the now infamous abortion non-debate at Oxford was cancelled because the panel was unbalanced, consisting only of white men which surprisingly enough got some women’s backs up. The dissent of this marginalised group was then cited as a challenge to Tim Stanley’s freedom of speech via the medium of an article by him in a national newspaper with a readership in the millions; at best a ludicrous assertion, and at worst a coy political manoeuvre designed to blunt that dissent and maintain the status quo in which men’s voices are never to be tempered, even in debates about women’s bodies. 

Because when dissent is framed as a challenge to free speech, the very principle of free speech has been co-opted by exactly those it was intended to hold to account, the powerful and privileged, the Establishment. The Establishment as in David Cameron, who last year pressed charges against a woman who dared protest his involvement in devastating cuts to disability benefit. The Establishment as in Prince Charles, who wields power over the government from the lofty heights of unelected luxury, but who can’t really be criticised for it because the royal family are exempt from Freedom of Information requests. Free speech has become a clever rhetorical tool, certainly, used by the very same privileged and powerful to shift the narrative to one in which they are the real victims, oppressed and shut down by single-minded dictators going wild with power. Single-minded dictators like debt-ridden, converse-clad students, and those pesky women who take it so SERIOUSLY when you threaten to rape them, sigh.

I think, then, that we can all pretty much agree on the importance of free speech, although the questions of who gets to speak and when perhaps prompt more debate. But it is exactly because freedom of speech underpins everything we believe in that we reserve the right not to give a platform to speakers, media or events which are potentially harmful to our students. Unions proudly share their origins in the same roots as free speech; challenging the establishment, disrupting the status quo and creating spaces from which we can safely lobby for change. Meanwhile oppressive and harmful speech is a silencing tactic designed to maintain the power of those who hold it. When our students are silenced by fear or distress their freedom of speech is infringed, and when their dissent is framed as a threat to free speech, free speech has been co-opted by exactly those it was intended to hold to account. It’s a clever trick where the powerful get more powerful and the oppressed remain silenced. And it is precisely because freedom of speech is so important that we must challenge these power structures and never allow that to happen.

8 comments

  1. Hi, I don’t really know enough about the rest of your post, but I’d like to comment on the canceled abortion debate. I think it was quite an assault on free speech for the debate to be canceled.

    I think there’s a difference between not granting a platform to someone, and thus not spending your own time/money/effort promoting what they have to say, if you don’t want to. That’s fine. But if I don’t like what somebody has to say, I don’t think I should have the right to demand for you to no platform them. This really was a case of “if you don’t like it, you don’t have to go.”

    Even if the panel were imbalanced in that neither of the speakers were directly affected by abortion because they weren’t women, does that mean they shouldn’t have the right to have an opionion on the issue? Also you do seem to ignore the point that it wasn’t a debate on abortion rights, it was a debate on the societal effects of abortion (“culture”). I’m not sure if you read the speech that was going to be made in opposition to the motion, it’s available here: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/why-i-am-pro-choice/16221#.VOHc6EJ5iyM. Far more eloquent than anything I could have said, and I think pretty interesting. Should this not have been heard just because the speaker was a man? Obviously, yes, men have a privileged position over women and are less in need of defending, but does that mean there’s nothing wrong when it’s a man who is silenced?

    Also I think there’s a point to be made that even if it had been men debating whether women should have the right to abortion, that would also have been ok. I don’t think you could find a more staunch supporter of the right to abortion than me, but I do recognise that the pro-life argument is a valid one. I don’t believe in the soul, and I don’t think a fetus is alive or human in any meaninful way. I truly think that abortion, as far as the fetus is concerned, is not tragic at all. But I could be wrong! The idea that an unborn child is a human life, and that abortion is thus murder, is a valid opinion to have (and one that arises from kindness, or compassion or whatever, not from mysogyny). And if you have that opinion, then it might be perfectly reasonable to argue that that life is more important than a woman’s right to choose. The fact that you, and I, and society at large disagree with that, doesn’t mean that that view is unacceptable and may not be expressed. Incidentally, as this is the minority opinion, it is exactly this one that should be heard if free speech is meant to challenge the establishment, as you argue.

    One last thought: I really like Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines. It is really catchy. I also think society would probably be better off without it. And if student unions, or night clubs, or whoever else, decide not to play it, I think that’s quite a good thing. But the step from deciding not to play it yourself, or talking to others about it, to banning it outright, is a step too far, I think.

    This has been pretty rambling and I’m sorry for that, I’m kind of in a hurry. I think your post is interesting and I’m going to be following your blog now. All the best, bye.

  2. Justifying limiting speech based on distress or mental harms is a justification which will inevitably lead to controversial but very important things being not discussed for fear of distressing some party. That is very undesirable in my view.

    Secondly this paragraph is all wrong:

    ‘ Likewise, the now infamous abortion non-debate at Oxford was cancelled because the panel was unbalanced, consisting only of white men which surprisingly enough got some women’s backs up. The dissent of this marginalised group was then cited as a challenge to Tim Stanley’s freedom of speech via the medium of an article by him in a national newspaper with a readership in the millions; at best a ludicrous assertion, and at worst a coy political manoeuvre designed to blunt that dissent and maintain the status quo in which men’s voices are never to be tempered, even in debates about women’s bodies.’

    I am a student at the Oxford college in which the abortion debate was due to be held, and am a member of the student executive committee that represents college students (JCR Committee). The reason that the debate was cancelled was NOT because the panel was unbalanced, indeed the motion that the JCR passed about this did not mention the identity of the panel speakers at all. I actually think it is pretty illiberal to say events should not take place based on the idea that the identity of the speakers is in some way ‘objectionable’.

    It was cancelled because 300 people had signed up to protest at the college about the debate being held with ‘disruptive’ instruments to make noise and prevent the event taking place. The college felt that they did not have enough time to put security in place (I know, I have spoken to the college authorities about their reasoning) to accommodate the protest, so it was postponed. The college have communicated to both parties that they are happy for the debate and the protest to go ahead as long as enough warning is given so that arrangements can be made.

    Also the point that somehow, because Tim Stanley has a national newspaper column in the Telegraph, he should not complain about a specific incidence of freedom of speech being challenged in Oxford, is misguided. People are quite entitled to use a platform to speak about incidences when platforms have been denied (wrongly) – what is the issue here?

  3. […] Anyway I guess I’m just apologising to anyone who had to sit through that event feeling like their basic right to exist in public space was up for debate. I don’t feel like I did a very good job of defending you because I was so shocked and drained from listening to the out and out bigotry of other panellists. I wrote a blog on this a while back that might explain my position better and you can find it here. […]

  4. […] Anyway I guess I’m just apologising to anyone who had to sit through that event feeling like their basic right to exist in public space was up for debate. I don’t feel like I did a very good job of defending you because I was so shocked and drained from listening to the out and out bigotry of other panellists. I wrote a blog on this a while back that might explain my position better and you can find it here. […]

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