Free speech and censorship are subjects that’ve attracted a lot of attention recently, and look likely to carry on causing controversy for a while to come. The most heated and high-profile debates have been around Islam and blasphemy, but that’s certainly not the only subject that’s getting self-styled defenders of free speech in an uproar: at the moment, an odd line-up of critics ranging from the attention-seeking contrarian wankers at Spiked to a long list of trans-exclusionary feminist academics are getting themselves worked up about a supposed culture of censorship in universities – and, crucially, are getting a fair bit of space in the media for their anxieties. Sara Ahmed has already provided a very thought-provoking demolition of the “academic feminists against censorship” position here, and I definitely can’t add anything to her argument from a feminist perspective; instead, I just want to think bit more about free speech, what it is, and who’s threatening it.
I think freedom of speech is important, but I also think it’s a concept that’s often misused. The basic definition I normally tend to use is being free to say what you want without being arrested for it, although in the light of recent events it’s probably appropriate to adjust that to being free to say what you want without being arrested or murdered for it. That’s quite a neat, simple concept, but it’s one that wouldn’t cover a lot of recent debates: for instance, in the case of Germaine Greer – and indeed Marine Le Pen – the issue being discussed is whether these speakers should be free to say what they want, and automatically given a platform at Oxford or Cambridge unions to broadcast it. This is clearly very different territory – if it is indeed a basic human right to be invited to speak at Oxford or Cambridge Union, then you and I are having our rights violated at this very moment. Of course, this idea is unsustainably daft, so it would appear that what we’re talking about is not the right to freedom of speech, but the fairly rare privilege of being offered a particularly prestigious platform for one’s views. Somehow, that doesn’t work quite so well as a snappy slogan.
But just because some of those raising a fuss about freedom of speech are either very disingenuous or very daft – or both – is no reason to dismiss the issue altogether. Censorship is still an important menace that should be resisted, whether it comes in the form of state legislation or murderous violence, so many of those speaking up in defence of freedom of speech at the moment are doing so with the best of intentions. With that in mind, here are some facts that should concern anyone who’s truly worried about protecting free speech:
In Ireland, over the last few weeks, the police have been arresting more and more people who’ve been using their freedom to protest against water charges – at least 20 at the last count, including several teenagers, and at least one as young as 14. Perhaps TD Paul Murphy, who genuinely is a prominent figure of a kind, might get a platform in the media to talk about his experiences of censorship, but the rest of the defendants are likely to carry on being quietly shut out of the press, the way most of us are most of the time.
In France, since the horrific terrorist attacks in Paris, the state’s been tackling this threat to free speech by arresting over 70 people for voicing their opinions, with probably the most memorable case being the teenager who was arrested for making “ironic comments” on social media.
In Spain, last year the government passed a gagging law bringing in a range of incredibly harsh fines for saying the wrong things. Since then, the Operation Pandora crackdown on anarchists led to a number of people being jailed without charge, and there are still two anarchist comrades who’ve been held in pretrial detention since November 2013 without being convicted of anything. On a smaller scale, police harassment against anarchists is still ongoing in Bristol.
In Scotland, the police recently arrested a member of the Scottish Unemployed Workers Network for accompanying a claimant to a jobcentre to give them advice and support during a jobcentre appointment. In Dudley, the police pre-emptively arrested 27 antifascists the other week, and on the Crossrail site in London – a site where a worker recently lost his life, and the inquest into his death still has not reported yet – a worker was sacked for raising health and safety concerns last week, although he’s now been reinstated thanks to speedy and effective rank-and-file action*.
If you’re concerned about freedom of speech, and you want to protect it, there are some practical things you can do about most of these cases: I’d definitely recommend joining in the national day of action at jobcentres against the attack on claimants’ rights, while spreading information about these cases is worthwhile in its own right, and you can also join or organise protests in solidarity with the victims of repression in Spain and Ireland. These are all things that people who want to defend freedom of speech can and should do. On the other hand, if you’re in favour of freedom of speech, but your idea of freedom of speech covers the freedom for journalists and cartoonists to say things that offend Muslims, but not the freedom for claimants to give each other advice and support at the jobcentre, or if you’re tremendously concerned about the rights of academics you like to be given whatever platform they want, but can’t get quite as worked up about the rights of workers to raise health and safety issues in the workplace – maybe you should give it a rest, eh?
*observant readers will note here that this case also doesn’t quite fit into my minimal definition of freedom of speech as being able to say what you want without being arrested or murdered. But I think being able to speak out without being arrested, murdered or sacked is still a limited enough definition to be worth defending, and a long way from the kind of “freedom to say what you want, using whatever platform you want to amplify your voice, with no consequences of any kind whatsoever” idiocy being peddled in some corners.