As a philosopher, I like to use thought experiments. Suppose a BBC newsreader tweeted that there were more and more black families moving into their area and it was really bringing down the tone of the neighbourhood. I don’t know about you, but I’d be outraged. I’d probably want to express my outrage through social media, and I’d enthusiastically sign a petition to get that newsreader sacked from their job. This seems like a totally normal reaction to someone in a position of public responsibility making such an abhorrent statement.
Would that make me part of the ‘woke mob’ intent on destroying free speech that many on the right of politics have been railing against of late? The intro video on the ‘Free Speech Union’ (FSU) website presents the firing of Danny Baker for tweeting an image of a couple with a chimp to accompany the birth of the first mixed race royal baby as an example of suppressing free speech. But was Baker’s tweet any less abhorrent than the tweet of my imagined newsreader? I suspect Toby Young – Secretary General of the FSU – would argue that it is. He’d be free to do so. But those who do find that tweet deeply morally abhorrent are also free to express their view and to lobby for consequences. That’s how free speech works. What is singularly lacking from the FSU is a consistent and principled policy on when moral outrage is and is not warranted.
The right-wing free speech warriors are also pretty inconsistent about real world cases of free speech infringement. There wasn’t much to be heard from these valiant heroes when the General Secretary of the Labour party barred MPs and Labour party members from discussing Jeremy Corbyn’s suspension – a literal ban on free speech. Nor when an outraged mob of 26 MPs and 2 peers took their pitchforks to the National Trust for daring to produce a report on the links between the Trust’s properties and the slave trade. And when the government took the scarily authoritarian step of ordering schools not to use resources from organisations opposed to capitalism? Not a peep. It seems that their concern with free speech is conditional on what is being said.
This blatant lack of consistency was also apparent recently when Deputy Research Director of the Free Speech Union Emma Webb went on Talk Radio to express her support for the decision of the International Olympic Committee to ban athletes from taking the knee. Webb seemed not even to register the tension in a campaigner for free speech advocating the quashing of free expression. I tweeted about this, and actually received a polite response from Webb. For some reason, however, Webb deleted her response to me a short while later. In the absence of someone to talk to on twitter, I decided to write this article instead.
Webb defended her position by saying that her point was that rule 50 – that ‘no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’ – was being consistently applied, and that what she had said was consistent with thinking that rule 50 should be scrapped. However, what Webb actually said in the interview was that the committee’s action was the ‘right decision’, not merely that it was a consistent application of rule which may or not be a good one. If I said that the Taliban’s decision to stone a particular individual for adultery was ‘the right decision’, it would be reasonable to interpret me as asserting not merely that they were consistently applying a law, but that that law was appropriate. Why would anyone bother to praise the consistent application of a rule they didn’t agree with?
Indeed, Webb went on to defend rule 50, on the basis that 70% of athletes surveyed wanted to keep the rule. Do the FSU decide all of their policies based on surveys of non-members? Wouldn’t it be better to defend a principled stance of their own? Perhaps the Free Speech Union could develop a consistent policy that there should be safe spaces where sensitive souls can be protected from certain kinds of speech. But it would take some work to make that consistent with Toby Young’s attack on a workplace in which football talk was banned from the work environment. It’s all a bit of mess.
If at any point the FSU is interested in formulating a coherent statement on what they stand for, I’d recommend taking some time to reflect on the important distinction between ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘having a platform.’ Most of the so-called infringements of free speech they focus on are actually just instances of people being declined a platform. The fact that I don’t have as many twitter followers as Toby Young doesn’t mean my speech is being curtailed. That’s not to say there aren’t important ethical issues regarding who gets a platform. We surely want a range of views to be aired, and minority voices to be heard. But if that’s really your concern, then you’d make better use of your time focusing on issues of media plurality. You might, for example, be concerned with the fact that there are hardly any trans columnists at our national newspapers. And you would certainly be worried that exploitation of the UK’s antiquated libel laws might be about to destroy the only radical left print magazine left in this country.
It’s not for me to look into the hearts of Young and Webb, to judge whether their motives are pure. But my job is to spot incoherence and inconsistency, and I can see a mile off that the policy platform of the FSU needs a lot of work. I wish them well and would be happy to offer philosophical consultancy at a modest fee. But if they are serious about developing a consistent stand on free speech, then they should be prepared to find themselves in a very different Free Speech Union from the one that exists today.