Wednesday Live: The Importance of Free Speech

Claire Fox from The Institute of Ideas gives a worrying account of the decline of free speech in recent years, and what it could mean for the future.

In the last few years, there has been a sustained and multi-pronged attack against free speech in the UK. However, this attack isn’t coming from where you might expect; it’s coming from a movement of “radical free thinkers clamping down on the right to think” currently spreading through institutions that were once seen as strongholds of free speech.

Claire Fox came to The Attic for our last Wednesday Live event in May, to discuss the importance of defending free speech, making sure to emphasise that that includes speech you disagree with or find offensive. Claire has written extensively on censorship, and the intention to silence from those who utter the words “I find that offensive”, which incidentally is the title of Claire’s new book.

Claire feels this is creating a stifling atmosphere of conformity which is affecting many areas of our lives in schools, academia and the workplace.

Some of the most recent, and most documented, silencing, censoring and no-platforming tactics have come from our Universities. Speakers such as Julie Bindel, Germaine Greer and Peter Tatchell have been the victims of sustained attacks and even officially “no-platformed” by the NUS in some cases (in Julie Bindel’s case, the NUS labelled her as “vile, this was the basis of her falling foul of their no-platform policy”.)

The reasoning behind this no-platforming trend? That certain speakers would create an “unsafe space” in the University simply by speaking on a particular topic. Or indeed, for having spoken on an “unsafe” topic previously, as in the case of comedienne Kate Smurthwaite, who was banned from a platform at Goldsmith’s university in 2015 for being “Islamophobic”, even though the topic she had originally been invited to speak on had nothing to do with Islam at all. (Funnily enough, she was originally booked to perform a comedy routine on the topic of Free Speech.)

Claire rightly pointed out that higher education is not meant to be comfortable. Universities have been the setting for important debates and ideas for as long as they have been standing – and the only way to separate the truly hateful, challenging or oppressive ideas from the ones that will shape and reform our country for the better, is to debate those ideas in a public forum to see what sticks.

In 2014, Ellamay Russell from Spiked magazine summed up this attitude on British campuses as such:

It is exactly this kind of pre-emptive censorship that is maintaining a babyish climate at British universities. Students’ union policies are so concerned with attaining the moral high ground that they won’t even entertain the presence of those they disagree with – regardless of the subject… A debate without opposing and strong opinions is not a debate; it’s a bore. Students should seek out enthusiastic and opinionated speakers. This, after all, is how opinions are formed and tested – through argument.

It’s important to know that the idea of “freedom from speech” isn’t simply limited to our educational institutions. As students begin to enter the workforce, there is a real danger of these ideas affecting Britain’s business world. For a business to change and grow, every employee must have a voice and the freedom to speak, volunteer ideas and even criticise, without fear of retribution.

Sustained campaigns of hatred against those who have spoken out against “safe space policies” have often included attempts to contact the targets employers with a view to having them lose their jobs. This has left us with a curious dilemma where the business world is now a defender of free speech against some of our most historically liberal institutions. Employers and businesses must stand up for freedom of speech and association to ensure that not only are their employees rights defended, but that we as people, and the economic value we represent can continue to evolve through open debate.

The causes of movement provoked a lively discussion amongst the attendees. Claire Fox emphasised the role that identity politics has played in assigning people to fixed groups with spokespeople, creating a “new sectarianism”.

At The Attic, we campaign for a fairer workplace, one that prioritises Humans First. We will not create the change we seek in attitudes to work without ruffling some feathers along the way. We’d like to thank Claire Fox for an interesting and stimulating discussion, and our guests who passionately and wholeheartedly took part.

Claire Fox is a broadcaster, author, lecturer and director of the Institute of Ideas. Her book I Find That Offensive is published by Bite Back Publishing.