Freedom of Speech and Silencing

Have you heard the news? Apparently, sexual harassment policies and dignity at work schemes are the latest assault on freedom of speech. Or, at least, that’s according to the website Spiked Online, which earlier this week released its “Free Speech University Ranking.” This helpful guide used a traffic light system to rank University campuses according to the level to which they censor free speech. Such a study, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, should be an important tool for free expression. And this would be, if it wasn’t so fucking stupid.

According to Spiked, Cambridge is ranked “amber” (or having “chilled free speech through intervention”). I clicked on the Cambridge page to see what exactly it was that caused the rating, and the first piece of evidence was the University’s own prohibitions on sending offensive emails. Now, as someone who was a victim of a prolonged campaign of email harassment last year, that drove me to the brink of a mental breakdown, I can’t really see how, in that case, it was their right to send me daily death threats. The second thing flagged up here is the the computing services’ prohibition on accessing porn…which leads me to genuinely question if Spiked has confused freedom of expression with, um, wanking?

More disturbingly, CUSU’s anti sexual harassment policy is flagged. Now, I’m pretty interested in my freedom of expression, but I think I missed the memo where we, as a society had decided that suddenly catcalling, making unwelcome sexual invitations and HARASSMENT was a fundamental right of individuals in a democratic society, so key to our identity as free beings that JS Mill would jump out of his grave and personally defend it to the death, while presumably asking nearby women to show him their tits.

Scrolling through the Spiked rankings, I found myself completely perplexed. I could find no reason for why trans rights policies were enough to warrant cries of censorship, or why people suddenly have a god given right me death threats on Twitter because they didn’t like my piece about Germaine Greer. It seemed to have utterly no reference point in reality, but to be the paranoid ramblings of an idiot for whom “freedom of speech” was some sort of shield, to ward away monsters, though the monsters in this case appeared to be women, LGBT people, survivors of sexual violence, and people who might object to you using Pornhub in the computer room.
Debates about free speech are never far away in Cambridge. Whether it’s because the Union has invited someone unpleasant, or because a fascist is speaking in town, every single year I’ve been here there have been arguments, articles and angry Facebook comment threads about freedom of speech. So let’s just get back to principles, shall we: freedom of speech is, in essence, the right to speak freely without censorship. Fine. However it is conceived as a way of protecting individuals from higher authority, in most cases, the state. It does not guarantee you the right to be listened to, the right to a privileged platform upon which to speak (possibly surrounded by high fences) or the right to know that you can say whatever you like and not expect people to get mad, call you an idiot, or even organise a demo against you. The reason we have a concept, both in morality and in law, of “hate speech” is because we acknowledge that there should be limits on free speech, because words have an impact. Violence can be verbal as well as physical.

The highlighting, throughout the Spiked report, of “safe spaces” policies and the like is hugely disturbing to me. Safe spaces policies exist because we have to live in the real world, and the real world is not some idealised fantasy land where we’re on some level playing field, and no one has suffered any sort of discrimination due to being the wrong colour, or being attracted to the wrong sex. Having a “safe space”, whether it is in a campus SU meeting or at a demonstration or whatever is a great aid to freedom of speech. It allows for those who are in oppressed groups to speak freely, without fear of being drowned out by more privileged voices. Yes, I am acutely aware of the irony of me saying this, using my privileged position as a white straight boy, privileged enough to be given the platform to say this in a student newspaper. But it does aggravate me, at a time when true free speech is under threat, whether by extremist groups or by government legislation (*cough Theresa May cough*) that Spiked is blaming some of the very tools for empowering people to speak for limiting free speech.

I can’t help but feel that Spiked’s definition of freedom of speech is really something else. It’s the right to say whatever you want without fear of consequence, whether that’s degrading to someone, whether it’s sexist, homophobic, racist, transphobic, or just vile. We live in an unequal world, ladies and gentlemen, and by attacking the structures that are meant to counterbalance that, Spiked is really just trying to engage in its own form of silencing. They aren’t after freedom of speech. They are after the freedom to be a complete dick..


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