Fighting back against the censors

Jun 10, 2021 by

by Dan Hitchens, The Critic:

The groups who are taking the battle for free speech forward by speaking truth to power.

Over the last decade, Britain’s free speech advocates have faced a frustrating puzzle. They seem to have the public on their side: a ComRes poll earlier this year found that half the population agrees with the statement “Free speech is under threat”, and less than a quarter disagrees. The government, too, seems sympathetic. “Freedom of speech is at the core of our democracy,” Boris Johnson declared in February as he outlined plans to appoint a “free speech champion” for the higher education sector. And yet, on the ground — in workplaces, in universities, even in how people relate to their neighbours — there’s never been more fear of expressing an honest opinion.

Partly it’s a simple question of power dynamics. When people fall foul of the new speech codes, they often find themselves alone against a much bigger opponent. If your boss receives a complaint that you’ve created a “hostile environment” with your sceptical views about Black Lives Matter, he may find it easier to get rid of you than to launch a long, careful inquiry into what is really happening.

If the police inform you that your tweets about the trans debate have been registered as a “hate incident”, it takes some courage to just carry on regardless. If your students’ union decides that your small pro-life society contravenes their values, they can simply ban you without needing to justify the move.

But there’s a tried-and-tested way to change a power imbalance: get organised. In the last year or so, defenders of free expression have started to band together, often with considerable success. At Cambridge University, a group of academics successfully campaigned for stronger free speech protections. At the High Court, the pressure group Fair Cop won a major victory against police interference with free expression. Most significantly, a new organisation, the Free Speech Union (FSU), formed in February 2020 to give advice and legal support to “anyone who feels their speech rights are under threat.”

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