It hardly needs saying that freedom of expression is important. The introduction of free speech laws allowed us to criticise the King or the government or the church without fear of arrest or imprisonment. They allowed scientists like Charles Darwin to propose radical new theories that would previously have been censored as heresy, driving forward independent thought, and with it, our understanding of the world.
Without this fundamental principle underpinning modern society, we might never have seen the decriminalisation of homosexuality, the end of Section 28, the Gender Recognition Act or the introduction of civil partnerships and, later, equal marriage. Our Muslim friends would not be able to practice their religion, celebrate its festivals or wear their traditional dress. Women would not be able to work or vote or ‘disobey’ their husbands.
But whilst the good that has come of this principle is fairly obvious, in the social media age, free speech is all too often corrupted to serve as a shield for those disseminating divisive, dangerous and damaging ideas that target the most vulnerable among us.
To take but one example of this, the current onslaught against trans people in the press and on social media, the deliberate misgendering, the fear-mongering, the egregious mischaracterisation of trans people as sexual predators hell bent on grooming young people, the recycled, reheated homophobia, barely altered from 30 years ago and re-weaponised to direct at people who are, sadly, now seen as a more socially acceptable target, all dishonestly cloaked in the language of ‘legitimate concerns’ and their right to be expressed.
But freedom of speech, like any other right, is not, and cannot be, absolute. There are numerous necessary limitations that exist in order to prevent one person’s ability to speak, write or publish freely causing harm to others. Libel, slander, copyright violation, food labelling, national security, perjury and incitement to violence are all examples of valid and appropriate ways in which free expression is limited.
In all but a tiny minority of cases, the line between what is and is not acceptable is perfectly obvious. ‘Nigel Farage is a toad-faced Hitler tribute act who should yeet himself into a fucking skip’, for example, falls well within the definition of acceptable free expression, whereas ‘this is Nigel Farage’s home address and here are detailed instructions on how to make a shit-infused petrol bomb’ almost certainly does not.
Now, of course, outside of the legally proscribed exceptions, anyone is free to express themselves however they see fit, but in doing so, they must be prepared to face the inevitable consequences of voicing opinions that are injurious to the safety, dignity and mental wellbeing of vulnerable communities. It is not reasonable to expect that you should be able to proclaim a racist, homophobic or transphobic mindset, and the only negative ramifications be those visited on your victims.
David Starkey is a relevant and topical example of this. He was perfectly at liberty to appear on a podcast and say, “Slavery wasn’t genocide or there wouldn’t be so many damn blacks,” but he could not expect to do so without facing widespread public condemnation, professional censure and loss of income.
Maya Forstater, the researcher lauded in JK Rowling’s recent manifesto of prejudice, is another such example. Forstater had a contract with the CGD, which they failed to renew in light of her persistent transphobia and misgendering of those she didn’t consider worthy of the title ‘woman’. She subsequently sued the CGD, and lost.
The judge concluded:
"It is a core component of her belief that she will refer to a person by the sex she considered appropriate even if it violates their dignity and/or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.
The approach is not worthy of respect in a democratic society."
As both of these cases show, the right to free speech was both available and exercised by those who were later ‘cancelled’. Neither Starkey nor Forstater were imprisoned for their beliefs, but they were made to face the eminently reasonable personal repercussions that arose as a result of their actions. Any organisation with which either of them were affiliated had to make a choice between supporting them and, by extension, their harmful ideals, or severing ties to protect both the reputation of the organisation and the dignity of its employees, stakeholders and patrons.
In neither case was anyone silenced. Starkey is free to continue being racist, and Forstater is free to continue being transphobic. It is their right to do so, but they have no divine right to a platform for their bigotry, or to continued employment in an organisation that does not share their discriminatory views.
And this is what the whole ‘free speech’ argument comes down to. Those who spend their days shrieking about being ‘silenced’ (usually on Radio 4, on Newsnight, or in their nationally syndicated newspaper column), are actually upset that others have exercised their right to free speech to decry whatever offensive belief they have sought to promote. It is not mere freedom they seek, but the right to punch down with total impunity at those who already subsist on a daily diet of abuse and intolerance.
Social media, for all its many (many, MANY) flaws, has been a tremendous force for good in this sense. Ordinary people who, for so long, were denied a voice, may now speak up in forceful opposition to those who would seek to denigrate, disparage and dehumanise them. If, before the advent of Twitter, a high-profile author had published a dishonest and unreferenced attack on a marginalised group of people, they would have had virtually no right of reply. Now, they can raise their collective voices to condemn their oppressor and offer detailed rebuttals of her hostile rhetoric. Unsurprisingly, those who have been used to wielding virtually unlimited power in the sphere of public debate fucking hate this.
This is why we’re hearing howls of anguish about ‘cancel culture’ and ‘stifling debate’ from those who disable comments on their own articles full of malicious untruths and well-worn tropes. They’re not at all concerned about debate being ‘stifled’, they’re simply enraged because they no longer have free reign to propagate their bigoted ideas unchallenged.