Time was when the political right and social conservatives were enthusiasts for censorship – for “no-platforming” drama, film and books deemed obscene, disrespectful of authority or unpatriotic. The left, and liberals, were the supporters of freedom – calling for the publication of DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960; supporting the editors of Oz Magazine in the 1970 prosecution for obscenity; and opposing the charge of gross indecency in the staging of Howard Brenton’s Romans in Britain in 1982.
In every one of these cases, the liberals won, mocking those who were active in the prosecution. The victories effectively ruled out any further action to stop publication or staging.
It is different now. Significant parts of the left now wish to rule out speech they deem offensive.
In the USA, especially on college campuses, the view that freedom of speech furthers understanding, broadens the mind and sharpens, modifies or even changes one’s own beliefs is now frequently opposed by another view, often militantly expressed.
This holds that institutions of all kinds have a responsibility to protect people from opinions they find odious because they will sustain psychological damage from exposure to them. It dictates that the person or group who would cause such harm should not be given any kind of platform – in person, on the web or in print.
In the UK, several universities have been drawn into the struggle around the allegations of “hurt” and efforts to deny hearings for speakers accused of spreading hurtful speech.
Those university authorities tend to be more robust than their US equivalents in insisting that, once invited, a speaker be heard – though not invariably.
Freedom of speech and publication is passing, on the left, from being necessary to being suspect. One strong voice is that of Nesrine Malik, a Guardian columnist, who believes that “freedom of speech is no longer a value”, writing that: “It has become a loophole exploited with impunity by trolls, racists and ethnic cleansing advocates… aided by the group I call useful liberals – the ‘defend to the death your right to say it’ folk.”
The notion that freedom of speech is a neutral principle uncontaminated by history or social bias is, she believes, a “delusion”. Liz Fekete, director of the Institute of Race Relations, takes the same approach. She believes that “it is the privileging of freedom of speech over freedom to life that has emboldened identitarian and neo-Nazi activists, who are experts at manipulating naive liberal arguments about freedom of speech”.
These themes, if less strongly put, now appear in official discourse. A government white paper – usually a prelude to legislation – on Online Harms, which aims to make the UK “the safest place in the world to go online”, defines harms as “behaviour online which may hurt a person physically or emotionally”.
Thus free speech shifts from being something essential to a democratic society (even when offensive) to an issue dependent on a vague definition of emotional harm – which, by its nature, must attract myriad charges from those who claim criticism has damaged them emotionally, and thus must be censored.
Index on Censorship’s robust recognition, in an August 2018 statement, that “we, as users, will have to tolerate the fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic” if speech is to be free now faces an existential challenge.
In a BBC Breakfast discussion in August last year, the former chief crown prosecutor, Nazir Afzal, suggested that prosecuting someone for hate speech could stop his or her later development into a major criminal. Jodie Ginsberg, Index’s chief executive, countered that, saying: “The idea that we can prevent future crimes by policing expression is a dangerous road to go down.”
Yet it is an indication of how official thinking now develops.
Earlier this month, an essay – Designating Hate – was published by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. It was an unusually clear argument for censorship – in this case of organisations “which demonise specific groups on the basis of their race, religion, gender, nationality or sexuality”.
The proposal would task the Home Office with the duty of drawing up a list of those organisations which habitually use speech designed to prompt hatred, and to limit them “from appearing on media outlets or engaging with public institutions”.
They would be given a chance to reform: reviews would determine whether or not the organisation had changed its behaviour and, if so, it could be admitted to the media or engage with public institutions once more.
The good intentions of such legislation and proposed legislation are obvious. The framers of these policies wish to dam the flood of hate and threat which now pulses through social media, and to protect vulnerable people from their effects. But it’s questionable if they do protect – suppression of speech tends merely to re-route it, making it more alluring to those it attracts. And what is less in question is that they will in future promote a new kind of censorship, as algorithms pick up on key words to shut down blogs and messages which quote hate speech in order to oppose it; or which remove the output of far right or far left groups which, though repellent to liberals, have a right to be published.
The deletion of speech judged harmful opens up an endless trajectory, in which one excision begets another. “The fraudulent, the offensive and the idiotic” have always been with us, and though social media and the web amplify their reach, we still must tolerate them if we wish to preserve a robust civil society.