Free Speech Means Nothing Anymore

If we’re not talking about power, we’re doing it wrong.

by Lorna Finlayson

4 January 2022

A man on a ladder makes a speech to a large crowd on speaker's corner in London in the 1970s
Leonard Bentley / Flickr

In the current political climate, free speech is a bit like mental health: everyone at least pretends to care about it. Each gets used as a decoy for projects either unconnected or actively hostile to it: in recent months, free speech has served as a justification for clamping down on student protest; mental health, for forcing people into unsafe working conditions. Both are often invoked and ill-defined.

Asking the meaning of free speech might seem beside the point; high-profile spats over the issue are not good-faith disagreements that could be resolved with conceptual clarification. But the murkiness of the concept facilitates its weaponisation by the right. For this reason alone, it’s worth digging deeper.

There are two quite different ways of thinking about free speech. The thin – and far more common – conception is that we have free speech when we are not stopped from saying things. This gets messier under pressure – what exactly counts as stopping someone? – but on the face of it, it’s straightforward.

What I’ll call the “thick” conception is more complicated. It says free speech is what you are able to do with your speech. Direct interference is only one thing that might impact this. Another might be your lack of access to an audience; another might be your membership of a particular social group. In this conception, censorship is not the only enemy of free speech. Your voice can be silenced or amplified by your position in a broader configuration of power.

The left often responds to rightwing free speech panics by doubling down on the thin conception. When the right bemoans “cancel culture”, we often reply that while someone may have been uninvited from speaking at a particular event, or encountered strong criticism of their views, no one has literally been censored.

But the left should be wary of embracing the thin conception of free speech, even when it appears strategic to do so. The trouble with understanding freedom of speech as freedom from overt interference is that it ignores the ways in which speech is structured by power.

It overlooks, for instance, the unequal access that different people have to influential platforms and the unequal power speech carries; what an undocumented migrant and a billionaire media mogul can do with their words is vastly different. It ignores the many ways in which our freedom of speech can be constrained, in much the same way that thinking of freedom of movement as an absence of travel bans ignores how a lack of affordable public transport constricts the movement of many.

However, the thick conception of free speech complicates things in a way that often goes unacknowledged. We typically think of free speech as an ideal that shouldn’t depend on what we think of the content of the speech in question (except perhaps in extreme cases). It is this neutrality that makes freedom of speech an ideal on which left and right can converge, and which is summed up in the famous paraphrase of Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

There is an appealing neatness to this, but it becomes harder to hold onto in the thick conception. Once you begin to approach the issue in terms of power, you necessarily enter a field of political judgement. The dominant analysis of Kathleen Stock’s recent departure from the University of Sussex, for example, is that she was hounded out by followers of “woke” orthodoxy. Some (including, notably, the TV show host Lorraine Kelly) have questioned this analysis, pointing out not only that Stock resigned but also that, far from being disempowered, her cancellation has greatly enhanced her influence. The choice between these rival analyses is necessarily political, and can’t be easily insulated from our judgement of the speech and counter-speech in question.

The idea of free speech as content-neutral becomes even harder to uphold when we consider the silencing power of informal measures like smearing, shunning and shaming. A racist might have the power of their speech reduced by being called racist (at least as likely, they may see it increase), but a genuine smear silences speech in a way that legitimate objection does not: it blocks the proper apprehension of our words. I do not believe, for example, that “gender-critical” feminists like Stock are the victims of a smear because I see the designation of those views as transphobic as basically correct (and as Nesrine Malik has pointed out, free speech does not equal freedom from objection). The widespread smearing of pro-Palestinian speech as antisemitic, by contrast, is in my view not legitimate objection but distortion.

Which brings us to another salient episode in the free speech wars. At around the same time as Stock’s high-profile free speech debacle, another played out at the University of Bristol. Like Stock, University of Bristol professor David Miller was subject to a campaign involving calls for his removal for alleged antisemitism. Unlike Stock, Miller was fired, despite an independent lawyer finding that he had no case to answer. While politicians from all the main parties joined in the campaign against Miller, Stock was celebrated across media platforms and briefly tipped for a peerage (for now, it appears she will have to make do with her OBE).

It’s clear why Stock and Miller have been treated so differently: because of their respective relationship to power. Stock’s position aligns with those in power – of the government and much of the media – whereas Miller’s criticisms of Israel are anathema to them.

Some will say that Miller has not been censored: he is still free to say and publish what he likes. But this borders on disingenuous. If we stand by when people are deprived of their livelihoods for challenging power, when they are removed from positions of influence and consigned to crankdom, we cannot truly claim to care about free speech.

Miller’s sacking is the first of its kind in the UK, but is unlikely to be the last. The Jewish Chronicle, welcoming the move, has described his alleged antisemitism as “the tip of the iceberg”, hinting that academics who signed a letter of solidarity with Miller may be next. Unless we understand free speech in relation to power, we will be poorly placed to defend it.

Lorna Finlayson is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Essex.

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