The Limitations of Free Speech

We claim to live in a society founded upon ‘free speech’: ‘the right to articulate one’s opinions and ideas without fear of government retaliation or censorship or societal sanction.’ Yet, it often appears that the license of ‘free speech’ only extends to those who have the ‘right’ opinion. Those who express views against the prevailing group-think, who dare to challenge our prejudices, appear publicly humiliated and ultimately silenced.

Recent studies have shown that millenials can’t handle free speech. Though our association with technology would delude us into labelling ourselves as the most ‘progressive’ generation, nearly two-thirds of UK university students said they believe the NUS is right to enforce its controversial “no platform” policy, whereby individuals or groups whose opinions are considered ‘offensive’ can be banned from speaking on student union premises. We are quick to pass judgment and, evidently, restrictions upon those who question our restrictive ideologies: they are ‘sexist,’ ‘homophobic,’ ‘racist’ – SATANIC.

Whilst there are obvious exceptions, this ‘no platform’ policy is worrying: our own university campuses become institutes where oppression is permitted as opposed to sites of free speech, in which contentious thinking can be debated and discussed. This preference for only permitting an increasingly moderate opinion can be seen within the University of Bristol. Whilst the SU has recently put in a complaint against philosopher Roger Scruton speaking during the Richmond Lectures due to his previous homophobic comments, when Inter:Mission published Harry Shepherd-Smith’s article on sexual consent, ‘Have We Gone Too Far with Going Too Far,’ (linked below) we faced a barrage of criticism. One commenter stated, ‘this is just a totally thoughtless screed that contributes nothing of value to an important conversation – where are the editors?’

As a completely biased editor however, I can confirm that A LOT of thought went into this decision. I would argue that it is important that student forums continue to permit alternative opinions that promote discussion and debate on important issues. I am the first to admit that Scruton’s comments against same-sex marriage were homophobic, and that Harry’s opinions on sexual consent workshops were, at the very least, insensitive and misinformed. But just because you disagree with someone’s belief should not equate with the platform’s condemnation. Does Harry not have the same right to express an opinion as you have to criticise him? Whilst it would be easier to publish articles that everyone agreed with, this undermines the whole point of the ‘opinion’ section. 

In shunning those who dare to question the prescribed opinion, we become encompassed in an environment that is increasingly sterile, as opportunities for healthy argument transform into exhibitions of mass outrage, serving to choke rather than promote our free speech. This toxic attitude threatens the speech of marginalised groups who rely on free speech as means of questioning bigotry. The truth is that a right to free speech includes ‘hate speech’ or opinions which we deem to be objectionable. We do not have a right to not to be offended.

Our preference for increasingly moderate journalism allows us to cushion ourselves, surrounding ourselves in a bubble free from testing discussion, in which we pleasingly hear our own ‘correct’ opinions repeated back to us. But just because we choose to 'no-platform' those with disagreeable opinions does not mean that those attitudes cease to exist. It is only by allowing everyone the right to truly ‘free speech’ that we can protest against and ultimately defeat those who challenge us.

Oscar Wilde – ‘I can tolerate anything, except intolerance’