I call them ‘free speech warriors’ but you may know them as the ‘alt-right’ and/or as neo-Nazis and neo-fascists. Whenever they’re challenged on their racist and sexist views, free speech warriors will complain long and hard that their right to free speech is being limited. They may even whine about ‘political correctness gone mad’. What they refuse to understand is that if they should utter ill-informed opinions or hate speech, then people have a right to challenge them. That’s not closing down free speech, that is free speech. It’s the right to reply. For the free speech warriors, freedom of speech means “I say what I like and you shut up” and if you challenge them, they may even utter the juvenile “you hate free speech”. The free speech warrior’s concept of ‘free speech’ is nothing more a form of bullying, and by being over-sensitive to criticism, they are little better than the authoritarians they claim to hate.
What British free speech warriors have consistently failed to understand is that free speech is an illusion. Why? Because there is nothing on the statute books that enshrines the right to free speech. Even a first year ‘A’ Level Media Studies student knows that. Let’s just take a look at three ways in which free speech is limited in Britain.
- The Official Secrets Act: Everything the state does is subject to the OSA and when I say ‘everything’, I mean everything. Even the brand of toilet paper that’s used in government departments is covered by the act. Breaching the OSA can land you with a massive fine, a prison sentence or both.
This section provides the penalties and mode of trial for offences under the Act.
Section 10(2) provides that a person guilty of an offence under section 8(1) or 8(4) or 8(5) is liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding three months, or to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, or to both.
Section 10(1) provides that a person guilty of any other offence under the Act is liable, on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or to a fine, or to both, or, on summary conviction, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, or to a fine not exceeding the statutory maximum, or to both.
- DSMA-Notices (Defence and Security Media Advisory Notices), formerly called D-Notices are official requests from the Ministry of Defence to media editors advising them to not to publish or broadcast certain items for reasons of national security. The committee that oversees the DSMA Notices is always chaired by a retired senior military officer (a general, admiral or air marshal).
- Defamation Laws are used by the rich and powerful to silence dissent. Private Eye magazine has been subject to more libel suits than any other British publication, because it dares to ask serious questions about the powerful people that govern this country. Yet, defamation laws, when properly used, protect people whose reputations have been traduced in the public domain. Sadly, for the ordinary person on an average income, they don’t have the financial means to make use of the High Court to challenge the defamatory allegations printed about them in the tabloid press, which routinely makes up its ‘news’ from lies and smears. The LM network, being the contrarians they are, want to abolish defamation laws altogether. That’s not a surprise, given the fact that ITN successfully sued LM Magazine for libel in 2000.
If you go around thinking that free speech means having the freedom to racially or sexually harass people online, or saying the first thing that comes into your head, then you have a lot of growing up to do. But do these people actually go out of their way to insult their friends, family and work colleagues? Probably. They would claim that they don’t want to be censored and yet, we censor ourselves all the time. How many people tell white lies in order to spare the feelings of a partner, spouse, child or parent? Plenty. Do free speech warriors tell their boss how much they hate them? If they want to keep their job, then they’ll keep schtum until they’ve found another job. However, it is unlikely that the likes of Brendan O’Neill would ever find himself in that position but would he tell his paymaster, Rupert Murdoch, to fuck off? Unlikely. He loves the money he pays him to recycle the same old articles he’s been writing for the last 10 years.
In Excitable Speech (1997), Judith Butler argues:
Language is thought of “mostly as agency-an act with consequences;’ an extended doing, a performance with effects.
Free speech warriors aren’t cognizant of causality; they think they can say what they like, when they like and without consequences, but actions – including verbal actions – always have consequences. Those who believe that certain kinds of speech don’t hurt people should be locked in a room and subjected to hours of insults and taunts. Let’s see how they deal with it. The chances are they will suffer same kind of psychological trauma they’ve inflicted on their victims on social media and elsewhere.
The free speech warrior is a person that has refused to grow up and accept the fact that they have responsibilities. Free speech has, therefore, become the last refuge of the bully, the racist and the misogynist. Personally, I blame the parents.
Bourdieu, P. (2011). Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press
Butler, J. (1997). Excitable speech: A politics of the performative. Psychology Press.