For years, even decades, people have raised valid concerns about censorship in the UK but we also have a problem with people who don’t see the problem, either seemingly unaware or deliberately ignoring it, from the British streets to politicians in parliament.
Without the live studio audience, Question Time isn’t the Brexit Bear Pit it used to be but a few weeks ago, I saw the dotty Lib Dem Layla Moran was on the panel and knew it would be entertaining. It was a surprisingly good episode: when the idea of vaccine passports came up, the panel united against it. Moran said it wasn’t liberal, the baby-faced Baby of the House, Nadia Whittome, a radical Labour MP, said “no, no employer should have that much power over their workers!” The Conservative MP Mark Harper (leader of the Tory rebel CRG) said they were against it, the public health expert said she didn’t recommend it and the businessman said he wouldn’t want to treat his staff like that. There was just one lady in the virtual audience who effectively said it should depend what the job is, a view I can sympathise with.
However, I’m glad the panel agreed like this even though I’ve had my first jab. Medical passports for anything other than international travel would be a step too far, not like tighter airport security post-9/11: any kind of mandatory vaccination could set a dangerous precedent for civil liberties and bodily autonomy, could mean an end to patient confidentiality, and have broader implications for anti-discrimination laws.
Then a young woman in the audience asked “is free speech at universities a current priority?”
Moran said “absolutely not,” abandoning the liberal principle of freedom of expression. She also described a universal right as “very divisive” when free speech is for everyone. Universities have enforced particularly draconian measures, even erecting fences around quarantined students before youngsters rose up and tore them down, a scene straight out of some dystopian sci-fi “Young Adult” novel. During a COVID-19 pandemic, it might not be on everyone’s minds but lockdowns impose almost unprecedented state interference in our lives. Under usual circumstances but now more than ever, free speech is our most important right because if we lose it, what can we do when other rights are taken away?
The BBC’s Bruce claimed that less than 1% of speaker events at universities are cancelled but it doesn’t take many cancellations to create a censorious environment. When Tommy Robinson’s talk at the University of York was cancelled and The For Britain Movement’s own Anne Marie Waters’ speech at Warwick University was cancelled, I know other student societies aren’t confident to invite them. When Jacob Rees Mogg, Carl Benjamin and Yaron Brook, and Steve Bannon all had talks at British universities violently disrupted, isn’t there cause for concern?
The Labour response was worse: Whittome wittered about a “culture war,” a term used to be dismissive, before changing the subject. Not only was free speech not a priority, but no-platforming and censorship wasn’t a problem! Whittome claimed that free speech isn’t the right to a platform but that’s debatable. Freedom of speech is not simply the absence of the Stasi or the Gestapo at your door because of your private conversations, it’s the ability to participate in the public square: that’s preaching on street corners, nowadays it’s definitely online, and if a student group invites you, at universities. She argued that ISIS and neo-Nazis would demand the right to speak but she’s just plain wrong. We already have counter-terrorism laws which are supposed to deal with the Islamic State and a few proscribed Nazi groups. Censorious student unions and Antifa mobs are not needed to fight violent murderers and they’re often not bothered by hard-line Islamists! The token Tory was probably rather relieved when it was the businessman who defended the free speech of extreme racists, arguing that some people want to find out for themselves who the bigots are.
Living in a university city, this issue is close to my heart. Exeter does have a better reputation when it comes to free speech but there’s cause for concern: Katie Hopkins had to sign a legal document promising not to offend anyone in a debate. Private group-chats among students caused genuine racism scandals but the response turned into a witch-hunt, attacking people for guilt-by-association. Exeter University’s debating society invited Catholic campaigner Caroline Farrow to discuss sex work, uninvited for her “anti-LGBT” views before the university were pressured into re-inviting her. Weeks later, the same society made national news after students objected to two remarkable women giving a talk – ironically – about a “snowflake generation” and the student union temporarily banned external speakers. Perhaps worst of all, Devon and Cornwall Police investigated cryptic edgy far-right posts on a student Facebook page. Just down the road, Plymouth University banned students from setting up a men’s rights group.
This Question Time discussion is an example of a wider problem: the denial of any threat to free speech in the UK. “Freeze peach!” social media mobs jeer mockingly on Twitter. “Speech has consequences!” Similarly, I remember a woman told me on her doorstep in the Topsham by-election that “people aren’t arrested for jokes, they’re arrested for being racist.”
She was wrong: comedy writer Graham Linehan was visited by the police for “transphobic” tweets, a Scottish nationalist was arrested for gloating about the tragic death of Captain Tom Moore online, and Matthew Woods went to prison for a Madeline McCann joke. Poor taste shouldn’t be a crime. Police issued warnings to Manchester University students for placing anti-lockdown signs in their windows, hardly racism.
Some will say “minorities must be protected” but hate speech laws don’t do that. The first person to be prosecuted for “inciting racial hatred” was a black-British man. For decades, black anti-racism activists were taken to court for talking about white people in a generalising way.
Back to universities, most recently, a young woman in Aberdeen was banned from students’ union debates, buildings and services for two weeks for using the words “Rule Britannia” whilst discussing military presence on campus.
Social media websites may be private companies but in America, a First Amendment court case established that a privately-owned shopping mall had to allow young people to collect signatures for petitions and to ban them would infringe on free speech. The same should apply online.
It’s no right wing myth that Sadiq Khan established a “hate crime hub” dedicated to social media, the mayor citing a tweet from an ex-Muslim anti-FGM and child marriage survivor as an example of “hate.” As many as nine people a day are arrested, at least visited by police, for something they’ve said online. Some of that may well be related to real crime or indecent images of children, but clearly too much of it is not. Police forces have asked people to report content that doesn’t break the law. Too many people are either unaware or choosing to stay ignorant, or worst of all, willing to put up with people being arrested for their views if it’s someone or something they dislike, normalising state – and private – censorship.
Francesco Rufolo, For Britain Activist & Candidate