Boris Johnson seems to have forged a career out of saying the unsayable. Recently, the former foreign secretary upset people by suggesting that Muslim women who wear a face veil resemble “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”, prompting demands even from fellow Conservatives for him to apologise. Yet Johnson’s supporters rapidly presented him as some kind of free speech martyr.

Boris is offering himself in sacrifice on the altar of freedom of speech,” proclaimed the MP Andrea Jenkyns, without irony.

The comedian Rowan Atkinson, now sadly fully transformed from Blackadder to Johnny English, came to the battlements to defend the “freedom to make jokes about religion”.

Even the Conservative commentator Matthew Parris, who has described Johnson as “creeping ambition in a jester’s cap”, wrote of his discomfort about “the language of censorship” in the critical reaction to the former cabinet minister’s words.

“There’s a broader feeling in society that there are certain issues that are verboten, off-limits, you can’t discuss,” Claire Fox, a regular panel member on the BBC’s Moral Maze, told Newsnight viewers in a discussion about the furore.

* * *

Such claims have become routine. The view that “freedom of speech” is under threat has, in recent years, become one of the primary, perhaps even dominant, convictions of the political right.

Few things exercise conservative intellectuals more than the spread of “no platforming” policies at universities, which are regarded as a manifestation of a virulent and youth-corrupting cultural Marxism.

Could it be that the free speech crisis we’re living through is a crisis of understanding rather than substance?

Government ministers have endorsed the panic. Sam Gyimah, the universities minister, has criticised a “creeping culture of censorship” at British higher education institutions, warning that “people use identity politics as a way of frustrating free speech”. A new state regulator for the sector is being given the power to fine universities that fail to safeguard free expression.

Social media is another gushing font of worry for the right. Writers at The Spectator magazine routinely complain about “digital lynch mobs” and the “cry-bully brigade”, who supposedly shut down voices that dare to challenge a leftist orthodoxy.

A counter-protester lifts an Antifa sign outside of the Boston Free Speech Rally (Reuters)

Toby Young, who this year withdrew himself from the board of the new university regulator after a landslide of digital outrage over his appointment, claimed to have been the victim of a “Twitchfork mob”. Here was another fallen hero, along with his old friend Johnson, whose name should be carved on to the free speech martyr memorial wall.

Similar anguished warnings echo across right-leaning media outlets, from The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail to The Times and even The Sun. Attempts by activists to pressure companies not to advertise in the Mail on account of its often obnoxious editorial agenda have been presented as an almost totalitarian assault on the “free press”.

But is our flame of free speech really at risk of being extinguished by a mob of “snowflake” students, digital barbarians, intolerant “social justice warriors” and craven politicians? Are we in danger of losing a precious liberty? Or could it be that the free speech crisis we’re living through is a crisis of understanding rather than substance?

* * *

“Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties,” wrote Milton in Areopagitica, his magisterial polemic against government licencing of printers during the English Civil War.

But it was the Victorian John Stuart Mill, two centuries later, who forged the canonical liberal defence of free expression, characterising it not just as a good in itself, but as the very motor of human progress.

“[Man’s] errors are corrigible,” he wrote in On Liberty. “He is capable of rectifying his mistakes, by discussion and experience. Not by experience alone. There must be discussion, to show how experience is to be interpreted. Very few facts are able to tell their own story, without comments to bring out their meaning.”

Amen, say all good liberals. Yet the first thing to emphasise, given the shallowness of contemporary commentary, is that free speech has never been absolute. It’s always been qualified.

We may have snapped the chains of state licencing of printing since Milton’s day. We have indeed forsworn blasphemy prohibitions, kissed goodbye to obscenity laws. Yet we’ve retained libel statutes to prevent innocent people from being defamed. We have contempt of court prohibitions to ensure defendants get a fair trial.

And of course we continue to regulate speech in public places to guard public safety, to forestall riot, to prevent panic. “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes most famously put it in his 1919 US Supreme Court judgement.

For a modern analogy, think of neo-Nazis being stopped by the police from screaming antisemitic abuse outside a Jewish school, or Islamist fanatics forbidden from picketing the funeral of a British soldier who died in Afghanistan.

Nazi book-burning ceremonies were part of a genuine assault on free expression (Getty)

There are, have always been, and always should be limits on speech in even the most libertarian and tolerant of functioning societies.

The serious question is not whether those limits should exist, but how loose the legal fetters should be. A strong bias towards free expression? Any semi-competent reading of history endorses the wisdom of that. But absolute, unrestrained freedom to say whatever we want, whenever we want, wherever we choose is a childish fantasy; up there with never-ending ice cream and no bedtime.

* * *

For some time now the BBC has been urged to stop inviting representatives of the Institute of Economic Affairs onto its political programmes on the grounds that the think tank, unlike most others, refuses to publish the identities of its funders. Those calls reached a new pitch of intensity recently after its boss was secretly filmed offering a potential donor private access to Conservative politicians.

But the very suggestion is regarded as scandalous in some quarters. The IEA’s associate director, Kate Andrews, has suggested that any move in this direction would “undermine” the organisation’s freedom of speech. It’s a remark that encapsulates how feeble the understanding of what free speech actually means has become in many quarters.

The BBC’s charter states that the corporation’s mission is to “inform, educate and entertain” audiences. There’s nothing in the document that says the BBC should, unthinkingly, give a platform to every strand of opinion out there.

The corporation does not, for instance, invite paedophile rights groups to air their theories about how children actually enjoy sex. It doesn’t ask David Icke to regale viewers with his thesis as to how an interdimensional race of lizards controls the earth. It doesn’t set up David Irving to debate with the chief rabbi about whether or not the holocaust actually happened.

This kind of ‘free speech in peril’ rhetoric is belittling to genuine victims of oppression

Suffice to say it doesn’t “undermine” the right to free speech of Irving, or conspiracy theorists or paedophiles, that they’re not given such a platform by the state broadcaster.

It may seem grossly unfair to place the IEA in such company. But the point of those examples is to illustrate a principle: BBC guests and interviewees should be evaluated on their merits, not given a free pass on the basis that they have something novel or distinctive to say. Ethical judgements can and should be deployed.

A far bigger editorial challenge for the BBC and other media organisations than the trivial one of whether to roll out the red carpet for a think tank with opaque funding is how to deal with the likes of Raheem Kassam and Steve Bannon of the Ukip/Breitbart axis, which is more subtle in advancing its increasingly far-right agenda than the old British National Party. Do you give what Margaret Thatcher called “the oxygen of publicity” to people who seem supremely relaxed about taking freedoms away from others? But, again, it is fundamentally an issue of editorial judgement, not free speech.

Former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon has become the darling of many on the far right (Reuters)

This is also the appropriate lens through which to contemplate the university issue.

Why should someone with a scientifically meritless, often transparently racist, agenda be given a speaking opportunity at a university? Many intelligent people seem not to appreciate that no platform on a particular campus or campuses does not mean no platform anywhere; simply not at those universities which, after deliberation by students and other interested parties, choose not to allow it.

Consider the case of a hypothetical racist eugenicist called Madam Mengele. Madam Mengele would have every right to hire a room, hall, or even a stadium, to deliver a pseudoscientific lecture to the like-minded. But Madam Mengele would not have the right to be invited to address geneticists at University College London. That would be as farcical as University College London geneticists claiming the right to be invited to address Mengele’s conclave in order to inform them they are all dangerous cranks. Nothing here violates the principle of free speech.

The question of whether students should be so quick to protest against the likes of Germaine Greer or Jacob Rees-Mogg being invited to speak in their lecture halls is another matter. So is the issue of whether “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces” and all the other cultural paraphernalia of modern campus life are actually progressive innovations. It is perfectly reasonable to debate the intellectual openness of our universities – but it should be done on the basis of facts rather than anecdotes. For despite Sam Gyimah’s assertions there is actually very little real evidence of an upsurge of intolerance to alternative views among students. Either way – to labour the point – this really isn’t a free speech question.

Indeed, this kind of “free speech in peril” rhetoric could be seen as diminishing the plight of genuine victims of oppression. There are places on earth where individuals really can be (and are) locked up and tortured for writing a political pamphlet; where a social media post can result in a door knock from the police; where people get murdered for what they write and say. Think of China. Think of Russia. Think of Sri Lanka. Think of Saudi Arabia. Most recently, think of Myanmar. But don’t, unless you’ve lost all perspective, think of Britain.

* * *

But perhaps this is a straw man. Is the real problem not state oppression but that we have fostered an intellectual climate that discourages people from airing their views freely? Barely a week passes without some public or semi-public figure being pilloried for opinions expressed, not necessarily recently, usually on context-free social media, and sometimes getting fired for it. As Matthew Parris says, isn’t there “an ugly intolerance of honest expression afoot in our era”?

The first thing to note is that this is a much smaller claim than “censorship”. But is this even true? It’s certainly not obvious that people are less likely to speak their minds nowadays. On the face of it there is far less inhibition than there used to be. A glance at Twitter and Facebook does not leave the impression that people are biting their tongues. There’s no shortage of “honest expression” to be found online, if that’s what one wants to call it. Rather we seem to be living through a Cambrian explosion of articulation, much of it not worth hearing. We’re told so often that this or that piece of government legislation, or article of regulation, will have a “chilling” effect on free speech that a foreign visitor might assume our public sphere has become a giant, lifeless snowball. In fact, it’s more like a boiling sun of clashing opinions.

John Wilkes, ‘a genuine free speech martyr’ (Getty)

But aren’t many people, nevertheless, being intimidated from saying and writing what they really think for fear of the consequences? From a historical perspective the claim is rather risible.

In 1763, the radical MP John Wilkes was sent to the Tower of London for publishing scandalous allegations about George III’s mother in his newspaper, The North Briton. Asked by a French friend how far liberty of the press went in England, he replied: “I cannot tell, but I am trying to find out.” That – take note Boris Johnson and Toby Young – is what a genuine free speech martyr looks like. A barrage of unpleasant social media messages and a rescinded invitation to debate at the Durham University students’ union doesn’t really bear comparison with being arrested on the direct orders of the monarch. One can guess how a scabrous character like Wilkes would have responded to today’s precious whines about bullying.

But even if we allow that the opprobrium of social media does make some people, particularly those in the public eye, think twice about airing their opinions, why should this be such an undesirable thing? Bigoted views generally provoke a negative reaction from colleagues, employers, customers and voters. Why is it inappropriate that this reaction be weighed by people before they air them? Yes, one could call this “self-censorship”. Alternatively one could call it consideration. Or even social progress.

There’s also an irony about people who would normally stand up for the right of organisations to manage their own affairs, based on their own values, complaining when they do so. Don’t restaurants, internet companies, trade unions, movie studios and magazines and so on have a right to make decisions on who they employ, provided of course that they act within the law and follow due process? Libertarians are often only libertarians when it suits them.

It’s reasonable to lament that there is too little engagement with argument in our online discourse, too much reflexive questioning of motives. Perhaps people are too willing to take offence. Perhaps too much of what we see on social media is taken out of context. Maybe there is an unhealthy obsession with what some on the right dismiss as identity politics. Yet even if all this is true, and some find it off-putting, even intimidating, this isn’t about free speech.

As the saying goes, if you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression

And the oversensitivity charge can be made in both directions. People regularly claim that their “free speech rights” have been infringed simply because they have been told their arguments are garbage, or have been “shouted down”, almost as if free speech is akin to the right not to be challenged.

The incessant calls for an “open debate” on immigration are another abuse of language. What do people who say this kind of thing want? Surely not an actual debate, because we’ve been in a rolling national conversation on the costs and benefits of immigration for almost two decades now. This is the kind of clash of views that Mill envisaged when he wrote On Liberty, though he probably hoped for more listening and greater respect for the fact-based arguments.

In fact, moaning about an absence of “debate” can usually be interpreted as a wail of frustration that the government is not keeping foreigners out of the country still more vigorously. Those who say they desire a debate don’t really want discussion; they want action. Some are also expressing a yearning to be able to articulate racist and xenophobic sentiments without being called racist and xenophobic by others. What they want is a regression in social attitudes on acceptable language. The “open debate” rhetoric, again, has become a kind of coded signal for the real agenda.

* * *

But one senses that there’s more to it. Why do so many on the right turn questions about the civility of online intercourse and the detail of university speaking codes into supposedly existential ones about the very survival of free speech? Why use this kind of hyperbolic and ahistorical rhetoric?

Are they deceiving themselves? Some might indeed be confused. There’s doubtless a dash of traditional declinism too: newfangled digital platforms are odious and universities were, naturally, much better places in the old days.

But it’s surely also about raw power. Only 15 years ago, a columnist like Boris Johnson could merrily vomit up offensive phrases like “piccaninnies” and “watermelon smiles” while writing about Africans in The Telegraph without hearing too much by way of complaint.

That’s changed now, thanks not least to social media. Today, the push back against such casual bigotry is immediate and loud. And, in turn, the online backlash becomes a mainstream news story in itself. That shift in the balance of power must feel alarming to many high-profile reactionaries; certainly an encroachment on their once safe spaces.

As William Davies has perceptively written, “the claim that certain people are being silenced is often a convenient spin on the way this messier, less predictable world means that prominent voices have lost authority”. That arguably applies particularly to legacy media outlets, which have seen their aura of untouchability steadily contract in the digital era, along with their advertising revenues.

Not being invited onto a national public service broadcaster might be irritating but it is not an attack on anyone’s freedom of speech

Claims about censorship and threats to free speech emanate almost exclusively from the right. Jeremy Corbyn supporters certainly gripe about the supposed ability of the Tory press to drive the broader news agenda and the apparent lack of representation of their point of view on the BBC. But they don’t tend to moan about freedom of speech. This is because they understand that outlets like Twitter and Facebook, if not quite levelling the media playing field, have amplified once marginalised voices and diminished the relative importance of others.

Not long ago the former Times editor, Guardian columnist, author of countless intensively reviewed books and ubiquitous broadcaster, Simon Jenkins, said: “I do sometimes feel a bit like what it must have been like to be a black person 20 or 30 years ago.” 

The Republican US senator Lindsey Graham shares Jenkins’ pain. “I know I’m a single white male from South Carolina, and I’m told I should shut up, but I will not shut up, if that’s OK,” proclaimed Graham during recent Supreme Court nomination hearings. 

As the saying goes, if you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.

* * *

But this leaves something important out. And that’s the fact that shrieks about free speech are increasingly made in bad faith. The desire is not for Millian debate to edify humanity but to pour more gasoline on the raging fires of our culture wars; to divide and fear monger for political advantage.

It’s easy to see this in the claims by supporters of Tommy Robinson that he was, yes, a “free speech martyr”, when the far right rabble rouser was initially found by a judge to have been guilty of contempt of court (a repeat offence) and sent to jail. The same claim has been made of Alex Jones, the far-right US conspiracy theorist who was banned from YouTube and Twitter after apparently threatening to shoot the FBI special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

It is plain that populist provocateurs in the US don’t despair at being prevented from speaking at universities – they relish being banned for the publicity it generates and the sometimes violent clashes with the far left their attempted appearances often provoke.

‘You are literally like a little gangster thug’: Marco Rubio and Alex Jones clash on Capitol Hill

A group of mainly US-based commentators and academics have taken to describing themselves as part of an “intellectual dark web” and “heretics” because of their supposedly iconoclastic views on gender differences, identity politics and Islam.

Objectively, it’s a ludicrous stance. Several of them have enormous social media followings and have been contracted by thoroughly mainstream book publishing houses. They must be the most coddled group of heretics in history, summoning to mind the comfy chair of Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition.

Yet this posturing, however ridiculous to people who give it half a thought, serves another purpose too. Playing the victim appeals to and stokes the increasingly paranoid world view of a large part of the right’s natural base, both in the US and the UK. And it’s profitable. As William Davies has pointed out, as a means of self-promotion it’s remarkably effective to market yourself as a dangerous dissident, even if there’s no substance in it. There’s money in free speech martyrdom.

* * *

So where does that leave us? How should we think about free speech in an environment when the concept is so dimly understood, routinely abused and increasingly weaponised for political purposes?

Perhaps it is better to learn to define it in the negative; to wise up to what it is not. To that end, here are some constructive suggestions.

First, let’s recognise that not being invited onto a national public service broadcaster might be irritating, heartbreaking even, but it is not an attack on anyone’s freedom of speech. Second, let’s accept that to be “no platformed” by a university might seem unreasonable but it does not constitute an infringement of someone’s intellectual liberty. Third, let’s agree that if your words happen to be scrutinised, found wanting and even cruelly ridiculed online, that does not mean you’ve been “silenced”, “censored” or “howled down”. And, finally, being criticised for saying or writing something that people find offensive makes you neither a persecuted heretic nor a martyr.

These, then, are some truths to cling on to, like a floating wreckage, as we bob in this swelling sea of confusion, cynicism and manufactured free-speech panic. May the rescue boat arrive soon.

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