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Don’t get squishy on free speech

Centrists and conservatives are being hypocritical on liberty

Artillery Row

There is superficiality about free speech across the political spectrum.

Over the weekend, in response to the pro-Palestinian demonstrations, Dan Hodges, normie-journalist-in-chief, said of free speech advocates: “Presumably if we follow your logic, in 1936 you’d have backed Moseley’s right to march down Cable Street. The right to protest was sacrosanct.” Well, yes, obviously.

This was hardly the high-horse-saddling, gotcha moment for the ages

Hodges’ rhetorical question does in fact articulate the view held by defenders of the right to peaceful expression. This idea is well-litigated at this point. One of the free speech movement’s heroes is David Goldberger, the Jewish lawyer who famously defended the right of unashamed Nazis to march peacefully in the town of Skokie, Illinois, a town counting Jews as almost half its citizenry. To believe in free speech is to defend views that you despise and ideas that might be unpopular.

Hodges did successfully highlight the double standards of most Western leftists in this regard. They have been happy enough to call for censorship of right wing forces that they dislike, but they are now seeing the pro-Palestinian cause facing similar scrutiny. This was hardly the high-horse-saddling, gotcha moment for the ages he was clearly aiming for, though. Such hypocrisy is well-established on much of the Left; they embrace it. “European fascists bad; Palestinian fascists tolerable — free speech rights for the latter and not for the former.”

It is, again, not a surprise that centrist commentators are unable to understand what holding a set of principles means. The more concerning development over the last two weeks is how little the mainstream political right adheres to — or even understands — the principles of free speech that they constantly peddle in broadcast and print.

In March, Home Secretary Suella Braverman admonished the police for investigating speech “simply because someone was offended”. Yesterday, she pledged to challenge the Metropolitan Police’s advice that “jihad” chants were not in themselves cause for arrest. Defending the rights of the protesters on GB News (the “Home of Free Speech”, with hosts of the show “Free Speech Nation”), my IEA colleague Reem Ibrahim was criticised for being a “free speech absolutist”.

In one perplexing monologue, GB News host Nana Akua said, “I get that we have freedom of speech in this country, but in my view, I draw the line when you are calling for what many interpret as death to innocent people … ”. Akua’s comment neatly summed-up how shallow and intellectually bereft much of the right’s rhetoric on free speech often is.

The standard Akua set in that comment is that speech should be subject to legal consequences if somebody is, or even could be, offended by it. That hecklers’ veto is precisely the same principle that underpins the British state’s restrictions on peaceful expression — those same restrictions that are disproportionately enforced against political dissenters on the right.

To give credit where it’s due, many of the more serious thinkers on the postliberal and communitarian right are very clear that they don’t care about being hypocrites, nor do they care for the morality of free speech. Those who smugly rehearse Mencius Moldbug’s lines about wielding state power against your enemies will merely roll their eyes at a sentimentally liberal defence of rights for those whose views we despise.

However, their refusal to defend the rights of this enemy-laden coalition of Lefty students and Islamic fascists is, in a very tangible way, self-defeating. These very same New Right thinkers talk endlessly about the pervasive influence of progressive ideology in Western institutions and the top-down nature of the Left’s culture war. This may be why I’m yet to understand why they think it is a good idea to solidify the legal principles that privilege left wing culture warriors’ opinions.

Your words will be the subject of censorship again soon enough

Just look at this weekend’s protests in London, where the Met used public order-based censorship powers to stop a group of counter-protesters waving the English flag. The attacks on the rights of “right wing” dissenters will not stop because the power of the state is turned against the Palestine protesters. Rather, we can expect to continue seeing deeply inconsistent application of censorship laws. As Sam Bowman neatly put it, “Saying nasty things about Grenfell or Hillsborough victims is much more likely to get you prosecuted than celebrating the mass murder of Jews.”

An important lesson from this whole affair, to everyone across the political spectrum, is that free speech is a package deal. Your rights are only safe so long as the rights of people you hate are protected equally — this principle holds doubly true if your own views happen to be rather unpopular. Don’t get squishy on free speech just because this week’s controversial cause is irrational and repugnant. Your words will be the subject of censorship again soon enough.

Respecting the rights of one’s enemies is essential to avoid risking persecution for one’s own views. If you want to stop the government’s persecution of your ideological allies, it is essential to fight for the universal right to free speech.

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