“Free speech” is a term which is thrown around a lot these days, often in the context of heated confrontations. “You’re violating my free speech!” is the new war cry of the alt-right on Twitter and Reddit, who will vociferously defend themselves against this so-called “PC brigade” which attempts to censor them at every turn.
It’s also the pretence which is used to justify the invitation of deeply divisive figures to speak at debates, talk shows and university unions. On 16 November of last year, former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon was controversially hosted by the Oxford Union, an event which triggered a frenzy among students, several of whom turned up on the day to protest. It’s not the first time the Union has had right-wing populists among its guests, including Katie Hopkins and BNP leader Nick Griffin, while American campuses have invited commentators such as Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. These figures, to many people’s eyes, cannot be described as conventional conservatives. Their actions and beliefs have included support of white genocide conspiracy theories, racially harassing people on Twitter, calling for a “final solution” and a history of backing nationalist parties.
Inevitably, the invitation of such figures to prestigious debating halls has provoked an adverse reaction from those who object to their views being given such a prominent platform, but what is more interesting to notice is the counter-backlash from many of their supporters (and even some libertarian “neutrals”) who accuse the protesters of “being anti-free speech”. On the Oxford Mail’s Facebook page, one user responds to the anti-Bannon protest by calling it the “fascist anti-fascism”, while another deems it “ironic” given the left’s supposed “support [for] freedom of choice and freedom of speech.”
What a lot of these people seem to ignore, though, is the fact that the right to free speech does not extend to the right of having a free platform. Ignoring the fact that there are parts of speech which are not covered under this freedom and can incur prosecutions (slander or hate, for instance), the right that someone has to express themselves as they wish does not automatically extend to having such views placed on a pedestal for all to see.
If, tomorrow, a nondescript individual turned up to a major television talk show, and demanded that they be interviewed, would the programme have an obligation to do so under the right of free speech? Of course not. Television companies, websites, and unions have the discretion of deciding which individuals they will host.
The matter becomes even more salient when it comes to private businesses, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media sites. It’s very common to hear complaints that such websites are censoring conservatives, even prompting a recent lawsuit in California against YouTube. Ultimately, Google won. The reason? As private entities, these social media companies have the right to host or censor content as they wish. Expressing your opinion in any of these platforms is a privilege, not a right, which these corporations have the authority to revoke whenever they want. So next time a controversial video gets removed, a far-right leader loses their verification badge, or an inflammatory comment gets deleted, “free speech” isn’t under attack.
As citizens, we have the right to speak, but not the right of being listened to. We have the right to express our viewpoint, but not the right that such opinions be openly broadcasted. Whenever organisations invite political and other media figures to speak at an event, they are making a conscious decision to acknowledge these views as being worthy of that platform’s privilege.
There are those who advocate the “show-them-for-what-they-are” mentality, arguing that unsavoury views should be included in public debates, as they allow for people to openly scrutinise them and ultimately reveal their intrinsic flaws. Many of those who propose this line of thought belong to my same political alignment, and I respect their belief and can even understand part of the rationale behind it. Surely, if a reprehensible argument is innately fallacious, we should have no problem tearing it apart for everyone to see? But this is besides the point. There are countless spaces where people can express a plethora of views, and we are free to criticise them there. Yet, when it comes to providing prominent or highly publicised platforms, we must be far more selective and judicious, as an invitation bestows an specific power to a guest who can now put forward their argument with an often unprecedented level of authority.
As much as I fundamentally believe in the importance of debating issues, even with people holding incredibly different viewpoints, I also think that there are certain opinions which are blatantly offensive and damaging to the extent that they do not deserve a free platform. Of course, union committees or other managing boards hold this ultimate decision. But we have the right (under our free speech) to criticise them for broadcasting such views, and by doing so we are not attacking freedom of expression in any way but rather denouncing how certain figures are granted the, often considerable, honour of having their views put forward in some of the world’s most prestigious places. Let them say what they want to say (within the aforementioned legal limits), but think twice about providing them with a stool and megaphone.