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Freedom of speech and its consequences

It's often said that free speech advocates must accept that free speech has consequences. We should pause to ask what kind of consequences we think are acceptable, says LSBU's Philip Hammond.
This article is more than 3 years old

Philip Hammond is Professor of Media & Communications at London South Bank University.

As a journalism lecturer, I was struck by the comment made recently by Karl Turner MP, that:

Of course everyone has the right to freedom of expression. But that doesn’t mean freedom from the consequences from what they have said”.

Turner was referring to the police investigation of David Starkey and Darren Grimes — the former for making racist comments in a YouTube interview, and the latter for failing to challenge them.

The view of many, including Labour leader Kier Starmer, was that it was right for both interviewee and interviewer to face criminal investigation and possible prosecution for what one of them had said and the other had not said. This seems quite a long way from everyone having the right to freedom of expression, and the implications for journalism are disturbing. Likewise the implications for academia: although the police eventually dropped the matter, Starkey lost his fellowship of the Royal Historical Society, his honorary fellowship at Cambridge and his visiting professorship at Canterbury Christ Church University, as well as having his honorary degree from Lancaster University revoked.

Restrictions in law

There are of course many constraints on freedom of speech in UK law. How people view these restrictions often seems to depend on their political sympathies. To some, the Prevent regulations on extremist speech in universities are an unwarranted imposition but laws against hate speech look less problematic, even perhaps a welcome check on racist rhetoric. For others, the balance tips the other way. My own view is that the fewer restrictions the better, and that the only principled defence of free speech is that it has to be for everyone — including those whose views we find obnoxious — although this now seems to be a minority outlook.

In education, as in journalism, the question of how far one should expect free speech to have negative consequences takes on special significance because of the role these professions have traditionally been expected to play. For both, the freedom to air the widest possible range of views — including potentially objectionable, outlandish and offensive ideas — was meant to be part of the mission. How else could audiences be properly informed and able to make up their own minds? How else could students encounter the full range of ideas and learn to think critically about them? Just as most people would object to being told what to think by broadcasters, so they would expect that the outcome of intellectual enquiry in research and teaching should be open-ended rather than preordained.

A perplexing turn

Historically, education has fought to liberate itself from the straitjacket of religious dogma or political orthodoxy, and to pursue the Enlightenment ideal of thinking for oneself. Now, in a strange inversion, the authorities emphasise the requirement for educational institutions to remain politically neutral and consider imposing legal obligations to uphold academic freedom, while scholars apparently take the opposite stance. Resolutions to be considered at this autumn’s University and College Union conference urge that members ‘must fully support the BLM movement’, for example, and dismiss ‘spurious “free speech” or academic freedom arguments’ as dishonest attempts to ‘cloak anti-trans campaigning’.

In my experience, we used to aspire to making the classroom a safe space in the sense that ideas and arguments could be pursued free from consequence — no question too dumb to ask, no argument ruled out as unsayable, no idea so offensive that it could not be thought about and discussed. Now our conception of an educational safe space is one where some views are protected from criticism and the idea of free speech is inherently suspect. Yet even that will not save us. Samuel Paty reportedly gave his pupils a trigger warning, allowing them to leave the room if they felt uncomfortable about seeing and discussing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons he was about to show. It did not save him: a few days later he was stabbed and decapitated.

What consequences?

To those who maintain that advocacy of free speech must entail acceptance of the consequences, the question is now starkly posed: how dire should we expect and allow those consequences to be? Should it mean accepting possible prosecution? Should it mean accepting the loss of employment and professional status? Presumably few would argue that it should mean accepting the risk of losing one’s life, but consider this scenario.

Imagine you were scheduled to teach a class on free speech — a standard fixture on journalism courses. Further suppose that there had been a national controversy about this issue in your country, where the right to free expression violently collided with minority religious convictions. Would you dare teach the topic? If you did, would you feel obliged to make it clear to your students that it is wrong for a satirical magazine to publish material it knew would deeply offend some readers? If so, you would be teaching a generation of budding journalists that free speech is dangerous and wrong. Your students would learn to fear, rather than to speak freely.

The only consequence of offensive, even hateful speech should be more speech — not the law, not the sack, not the butcher’s knife. Otherwise, we terrorise each other into silence.

7 responses to “Freedom of speech and its consequences

  1. I wholeheartedly agree Philip and this is very well argued. ‘Terrorising each other into silence’ will make the world a far more dangerous place, Universities must be the safe haven for these types of discussion and we must continue to uphold this hard fought for right. It strikes me we have not reconciled to the issue of the right not to be offended. I profoundly disagreed with Starkey, but was troubled by the consequences wrought upon him.

  2. Free speech has consequences, not having free speech has consequences. But having free speech has huge benefits whereas restricting speech has none – other than the avoidance of the consequences of free speech. So the net benefit is obvious.

  3. I support the principle of the freedom of speech.

    However, does the statement “The only consequence of offensive, even hateful speech should be more speech” hold when you are defamed, libelled, slandered or are observing people being radicalised?

  4. I have never met a real free speech advocate – what they actually mean when you get down to it is “speech they agree with”.

    “no argument ruled out as unsayable, no idea so offensive that it could not be thought about and discussed”.

    OK – here is a simple example – a student argues that the white race is superior and that other races are degenerate and that the holocaust was a good thing – are we really saying other students have to have class time taken up with this?

  5. This is a great piece. Obviously speech is never totally free of consequence, if there is libel or defamation, incitement to violence then that is addressed via criminal law. There should be consideration of how we address deliberate spreading of misinformation. But thought cannot be policed, we need to support an intellectual approach to difficult subjects and universities have a responsibility to model that. Silencing causes polarity and that creates a risk to all of us.

  6. We need the academy to support the same speech privileges as the Houses of Parliament. Staff and students both need to interrogate ideas openly and freely, not self-censor and perform fealty to a consensus they don’t understand or agree with. If we can’t have free exchange at that level, the proper cultural transmission is completely disabled and we’ll rapidly spiral back into darkness.

    I think of this prof’s valiant efforts to help his students look afresh at a particular cherished belief, against hectoring, heckling and attempts to prevent other students even from *considering* the point – – shouting him down is the antithesis of education.

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