Free Speech?

The line between free speech and hate speech is being blurred; but is anyone paying attention?

‘Millennials’, ‘snowflakes’, ‘triggered’, ‘lefties’, ‘vegan hippies’; without a doubt, there is a fiery debate taking place about Generation Z and our ability to debate without getting offended. Usually, these criticisms come from the older generation – those who cry: “I miss the good old days when no-one complained about Yorkies not being for girls, and now Greggs are changing their name to be more gender neutral! The world has gone mad!”. We all know that person. They’re the kind of people who read the Daily Mail, love Piers Morgan, or think Tommy Robinson is a top bloke. However, beneath the surface of this Gen Z vs. Baby Boomer war, there is something darker. Underneath all of the insults is the idea that people are somehow entitled to offend others. Why? Because we’re all entitled to our own opinion. That is true, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but nowhere in that promise is a guarantee that anyone will accept it, and there is certainly no guarantee that people wont argue against it. Recently, there has been a trend of people – largely the self-proclaimed ‘Alt-right’ – who say that the introduction of trigger warnings, safe spaces, and generally being more considerate to others is somehow an infringement on free speech. But is the term ‘free speech’ being used to masquerade what is actually hate speech?

Royal Holloway is known as a left-leaning, politically active university. Our history is inextricably rooted in a pursuit of equality and diversity. However, a quick glance at our universities  favourite meme page (Royal Hateoway), and it would seem that our campus is completely polarised. ‘Gen Z vs. Baby Boomers’ is replaced with ‘The Left vs. The Right’, and the situation is hostile. But is it really the case that our university has become a hotbed for far-right views? I spoke to students and lecturers from different ends of the political spectrum and the general consensus is: not really. It is not the case that our university has become inundated with radical, right-wing fascists; rather, there are a handful of people at Royal Holloway (some of whom publicly identify as Neo-Nazis) who are weaponising free speech. The lines between free speech and hate speech are being blurred, and hardly anything is being done to stop it.

For a wider discussion of the issue of free speech and its ties to far-right politics beyond the Royal Holloway campus, I spoke to James Smith, a lecturer at Royal Holloway from the English department. I asked James what he thought about the exploitation of the term ‘free speech’ by the far-right: 

“Free speech is crucial to the self-representation of these new forms of right-wing movements. They come to us arguing that they are simply here to defend debate and open dialogue of different views (‘we just want to use science! We just want to examine race and IQ/ gender difference and so on’) – indeed, even to the point of claiming to speak for science, the Enlightenment itself, which they say has been betrayed or in some way stifled by todays liberals and left-wingers. But there has also been this kind of anarchic, trolling culture within this new right, where you were getting really extreme things being said, but always with some form of plausible deniability. There was always this claim that it was all just a transgressive joke, and if you took offence to it you were just humourless or ‘politically correct’. These versions of free speech make the error of pretending that simply stating something is an innocent thing that happens in vacuum. If we buy into this definition of free speech, we overlook the fact that speech is always performative. Things are said in order to create a certain effect or to make something happen. Not just to neutrally ‘reflect’ reality. So, when these people say, ‘I’m merely stating statistics or facts’’, they are never merely doing that. They are always saying it in a certain political spirit, or with the intention that these ‘facts’ will be interpreted in a particular way. This extends even to the claim that their free speech is being suppressed. If I say I am being censored, it affords what I have to say the appearance of a special heroism. It invites people who might otherwise not agree with me to come to my aid.”

I began to wonder about a few incidents which have taken place at Royal Holloway, most of which were generally shoved aside as inconsiderate, but not outright damaging or dangerous to students. The most notable event being the appearance of the ‘Its OK to be White’ posters that still remain on lampposts and electricity boxes around Englefield Green. Most have been scribbled out or ripped off, but this is exactly the type of act James is referencing. The posters may be defended because they don’t explicitly incite hatred against any person or group specifically, but there is a performative essence to their presence around the university. They suggest that there is an attack on whiteness, when clearly there is no such thing. The signs originate from the site 4Chan, and were initially intended as a provocation, or a form of trolling. However, they were soon adopted by the far-right, white supremacists, and even the KKK. Clearly, these posters serve a darker purpose.

I spoke to a few students to see what their concerns were surrounding free speech – do they feel its being exploited, or suppressed? Peter Dowling – second year Law student and Treasurer of Mises society, who identifies as ‘right of centre, Conservative, and libertarian minded’ – says that free speech should have no limitations:

“I don’t think that shutting down and stifling free-speech and discussion is one that should be partaken in. I believe universities should have a completely open attitude to free speech, where all ideas can be discussed. Regardless of how controversial certain issues are, they all need to be discussed freely so we can formulate balanced and fair opinions on them. Even the most repulsive speakers – who I would never endorse – should have the opportunity to speak. When blanket safe-space policies are brought in like ‘The whole SU is a safe-space, therefore we can’t discuss these things’, it does become an infringement because its shutting down discussions of ideas. If there are certain topics that are completely taboo to discuss – even in the appropriate academic circumstances, under the banner of ‘political correctness’, then that can become a problem, and an infringement on free speech.”

The Mises society have recently been subject to criticism because of their use of the Gadsden flag during the freshers fair; a flag has often been linked to support of Donald Trump, and White American nationalism. Peter responded to these criticisms: “It was a flag that was created during the American revolution and it simply means that we ‘don’t want to be tread on’. We don’t want state intervention, whether that be with taxes or taking away our liberties. It has become a symbol of libertarianism”. I asked Peter if it was possible to remove the flag from its dark history. Its creator, Christopher Gadsden, was a prominent slave trader, and nearly 40% of the slaves that passed through America did so through Gadsden Wharf. Peter said that social context is crucial for understanding the history of flag: “I think you need to understand the social context. In those days of colonial America, huge amounts of industry relied upon the slave trade. It was a tragic, terrible fact, but it was a fact of daily life in America. Whilst I have a great respect for many of the founding fathers, I don’t have to agree with everything they’ve done.”

After receiving complaints about the flag, the Mises Society were forced to remove it from their stall. To some, this might seem like an example of peoples free speech and political expression being (ironically) trod on. This is where the complexity of the issue lies. To some, universities should have a completely open attitude to free speech and political expression, and that open-attitude should include allowing a flag with a bloody history to fly. To others, it would be best just to avoid the flag completely…

On the other side of the political spectrum, I spoke to Molly Arthurs: Treasurer of Young Greens, an eco-socialist, and a member of the Green Party. I asked Molly if she thought the line between free speech and hate speech had been blurred. She said it absolutely had:

“The entire concept of free speech is that you have the freedom to call out oppression, being able to speak against the government without being shut down, but for some reason these days people see ‘Free speech’ and they think it means they can go around using slurs and no-one can criticise them. Free speech does not mean the right to an audience. No-one is stopping you from saying anything, but that doesn’t mean you’re entitled to a willing and listening crowd. I’m surprised that the people who claim to be so passionate about freedom of speech are the same people who are creating environments where minorities feel unable to speak. I don’t know if it’s hypocrisy or just a complete lack of analysis, but whatever it is – it doesn’t belong in our university. Students need to feel safe on campus.”

Molly’s comment about minorities feeling unable to speak raised yet another concern. Under the banner of free speech, ‘OK’ posters, transphobic literature, horrific sexist and racist comments on social media, and chanting for Tommy Robinson in Founders Square have been ignored; and it is clear that this is unacceptable. These incidents are not merely harmless jokes or provocations, but very real indications of something dangerous brewing at Royal Holloway. If you are one of the people who is unconcerned by these events, perhaps you need to check your privilege. The students who are suffering from this exploitation of free speech are the ones who are unable to speak, or are scared to speak. They are the ones whose identities are being threatened in the most subtle, yet completely recognisable ways. Looking forward, it would be nice if Royal Holloway as a college (rather than just the SU) would unequivocally say that our campus has no place for such threats. In fact, it wouldn’t just be nice, it is crucial for the safety of our students, and crucial to the integrity of Royal Holloway as a whole.