A right to speak is not a right to be listened to

Today’s topic of not practicably tweetable size is freedom of speech, censorship, and how they relate to something rather cumbersomely called ‘no-platforming’.  I realise that this has been well-covered by a myriad of other people but, entirely in line with my position, my right to express and opinion on the matter is perfectly matched by everyone else’s right to completely ignore me.

No-platforming is the idea, originating in its particular form with anti-fascist campaigns, that certain people and groups should be refused the implicit legitimisation of a particular platform.  And the notion of legitimisation is important.  Practicality means that not everybody can have an equal opportunity to speak, so by giving a group a defined space to speak, a university (or similar organisation) is saying that this group has a position that is worth considering.  This is not the same as a direct endorsement, but it is important.

For a recent example, look at the BBC’s mistaken (and now apparently reversed) insistence on giving equal air time to climate change deniers.  The BBC maintained it was being neutral, but the result of its actions were that uninformed people were given the impression that scientific experts were more-or-less evenly split on the matter.  When the fact is that the vast majority, particularly of those with an expertise in the relevant areas, of scientists agree that human-driven climate change has been confirmed as occurring.  The real debate has long moved on to determining the precise extent of this, its likely effects, and how we can react.

The reverse position to this would be to require certain public entities (such as universities or broadcasters) to give a fixed minimum of time or space to anybody who desired to speak.  Now you might note that this is already partially the case: in the run-up to a general election all of the major parties are permitted the same amount of coverage for their political broadcasts (a situation that, while I applaud for the way it reduces the reliance on campaign funding by donors, also serves to entrench the position of the established political parties).

So what is and isn’t censorship?

Let me make it perfectly clear: censorship is a positive action.  Inactivity can never amount to censorship.  To say otherwise would be tantamount to arguing that if I said I’d give you £10 (without strings attached), and then withdrew the offer before handing it over, that somehow you’d lost money.

It also has to involve the state or some similar-level entity.  Me telling you that I don’t want to hear you spout off about this that or the other in my house is not censorship, but me exercising my – essential to any true notion of free speech – to not be forced to listen.  This is as important as the right to freedom from religion is as a part to freedom of religion, or any such similarly fundamental liberal position.  You might  note that the regimes that are most associated with censorship are also those keenest on propaganda: they don’t just want certain voices to go unheard, they want their own views to be forcefully disseminated in their place.

And finally, true censorship must be blanket; it’s not censorship to suggest that certain things can only be said or done in appropriate fora.  There’s nothing wrong with suggesting that you might like to keep off saying ‘fuck’ until after the 2100 watershed, as long as there are places people can swear to their heart’s content.  And outside of a few areas that are palpably dangerous (incitement to violence, etc.), in the UK we still generally allow people to say pretty much what they want in public.  In actual fact, the greatest threat to free speech is nothing to do with no-platforming at universities, but restriction of the right to demonstrate or to strike without meeting unreasonable conditions.  But these are most commonly associated with left-wing causes that fail to inspire the ‘libertarian’ crowd.

Perhaps the most baffling aspect of this matter is that so many of the FREE SPEECH IS EVERYTHING! crowd self-identify as libertarian.  So people who profess opposition to the state are moaning that their pet causes aren’t getting access to state-funded platforms? (because in the UK, at least for now, universities still are that)   If they think that provision of a platform is a fundamental right, then I’d like them to provide me with my own TV channel so I can rant to an audience about whatever has caught my attention that day, rather than muttering it into the bottomless pit that is this blog.

Postscript

None of this has touched on the matter of who exactly should or shouldn’t be allowed a platform.  This is an interesting area for debate in itself.  And it’s perfectly possible to argue that no-platforming has gone too far – shouting down everyone who disagrees with one’s own position – without undermining the legitimacy of the tactic.  I’m broadly in favour of allowing as many people as possible to talk, but the particular decision should be taken by those directly involved.  For a university, this means the student body and faculty, not any outside body.  But then outsiders are perfectly free to try to persuade the students to call off a talk, just as the original speaker is entitled to try and persuade them of the value of their views.

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