Public debate

Zack Wallace – Positive Free Speech

Dripping in fake blood, fresh from a die-in protesting BAE systems’ presence at an engineering careers fair at uni, I was recently accused of a heinous crime – attempting censorship. Banners and leaflets explaining why some of us thought a corrupt arms company should not be given an advertising platform were criticised as trying to infringe the rights of both the corporation and students to free expression. Furious debate in the student newspapers ensued. I will argue here that the views of such companies are consistently over-represented, and a positive as well as negative idea of free expression is important for this – and many other – important debates.

Free speech or expression might be described as freedom to seek, receive and impart any ideas and information anywhere, at any time. The free trading and debating of ideas is necessary for a free and democratic society, and censorship a tool often used to prevent social change, and maintain power relations, by silencing ideas. Free speech is also vital for developing our thoughts, ideas and identities as individuals, much needed for individual autonomy and liberty. We can’t, however, all exchange ideas with everyone we would like to all of the time, and working out how free speech can be maximised,  and balanced with other considerations, is a difficult task.

“I may disagree with what you have to say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.” This proclamation by Voltaire captures the essence of many problems surrounding free speech. Is free speech acceptable even when it threatens to incite violence or racism? Should we limit it to protect ‘national security’, and silence whistle-blowers like Manning or Snowden? Whilst these type of questions are are frequently discussed debates about free speech, but are not the focus of this article. A company both selling arms to dictatorships and having several recorded incidents of serious fraud[i], causes enough harm by recruiting graduates that an argument for censorship would be powerful; few would advocate for Al-Qa’ida to have similar rights. However, I don’t believe that not giving it a platform at a careers fair would be censorship, and can be justified on other grounds.

In silencing expression, individuals and society are deprived either of the chance to develop based on useful ideas and information, or of hearing the ideas to explain exactly why they are wrong or unacceptable, or most commonly, somewhere in between. Arguments used by a racist to justify their opinion, can not only be exposed to be false more easily if debated publicly, but by highlighting some of the misused evidence – for example about crime rates – serious issues of institutional or structural racism are highlighted. Marginal extreme opinions often cause little harm due to their limited influence and credibility, and more well-known ideas or issues should be taken more seriously, if only to be seriously confronted. It’s often argued that one limit of free speech is when it is no longer useful: false advertising, lies, slander, and unnecessary invasion of privacy can’t be justified, but just focusing on these misses another dimension to the debate. Implementing this approach to free speech also often requires a neutral arbitrator, which brings many difficulties, as well as allowing people with more money or influence even more influence, with unfair laws and expensive libel cases, when legal routes are taken.

So far I’ve focused on negative freedom. Negative freedom, or “freedom from…” is often contrasted to positive freedom, or “freedom to…”. Where proponents of negative freedom may focus on the importance of not banning books, proponents of positive freedom might highlight the importance of public libraries to empower everyone to access information. In general, negative freedom focusses on the state or other actors not preventing us from exercising freedom, whereas positive freedom recognises that in practice other structural factors also greatly limit some people’s freedom and need to be overcome. Discussions on free speech often focus on negative freedom, and the legal limits, whilst ignoring equally important limits to positive freedom. Many would argue that it is a false dichotomy – “negative” freedom from violence is closely linked to “positive” freedom to your bodily integrity – and that one cannot truly be achieved without the other. I believe that it’s vital to strive for both, but defining them is important to recognising when key issues are ignored.

Various factors: affluence, race, gender and more; mean that the views of certain sections of society are consistently promoted more than others, supporting a greater consideration of their interests, and an unequal and unhealthy world. The increasing concentration of large corporate media conglomerates or the low number of women in parliament, and the narrow range of perspectives or bias in interests accounted for as a result, shows the serious issues with this. In one sense we are all absolutely free to express ourselves on most issues, without serious fear of punitive state repercussions; a freedom we should strive to defend and expand. However, in meaningful terms, if you are white, middle or upper class, and don’t hold too radical opinions, it is often easier to spread your ideas further, and dominate discussion. Debates presenting the ‘opposing’ options of state controlled versus neo-liberal economics rest on many common assumptions and exclude opinions too critical of state capitalism and calls for serious changes  to our society and how we relate to one another. Mass media, a powerful forum for expression where ideas can spread far and wide, accept many such assumptions, which seriously limit the freedom of disadvantaged or dissenting voices to spread their ideas, and helps the interests of the richest. Striving for more and more profit has harmed the media: they are less willing to take risks in the criticism of powerful organisations; they devote less time and resources per news-story, which makes them more vulnerable to corporate influence and manipulation; and the increasing concentration of outlets in a few conglomerates reduces the range of perspectives[ii]. Similar issues can be seen in many places; from educational establishments to the internet.

How is this related to BAE systems? BAE systems can easily recruit through other channels, without us (or our uni) being compelled to sell them a stall in the name of free speech. While they can afford £60m in corrupt ‘slush funds’ to secure arms deals[iii] we needn’t be worried that we are silencing the company – I am not arguing that people defending their opinion should be censored. But their ability to present themselves as an honest company, ignoring rather than debating (and even trying to silence through university security, who excluded protesters and demanded photos be deleted[iv]) is quite enough, and should be reduced, to accommodate others’ freedom. We already live in a too militaristic society, where from children’s toys to films, the language used in the news to even the framing of remembrance day, all contribute to the normalisation and acceptance of arms and the military, in an underhand way.

So who is being silenced? At the careers fair, there was one perhaps good company researching and manufacturing green energy products, but other than that, several companies involved in arms manufacturing, many in investment banking, some car companies and a few others. Here, as many places, free expression is something bought and sold – with a high cost to renting the stall, of the leaflets, merchandise and freebies, of the employees marketing the companies – only large (and often corrupt or dubious) companies could afford to take part.  Arms company funding of research and degrees is another area where money has too much influence over what is discussed in universities[v]. As this was an engineering fair, I would have liked to see lots of development organisations[vi], projects to help disaster relief, more organisations tackling climate change,  and other good and small initiatives that do exist but have been silenced by lack of money. But it isn’t just the freedom of the organisations, it’s also about the freedom of prospective employees to receive a range of undistorted information. A better approach could be for a student committee to decide transparently on a diverse set of organisations, that would interest more students anyway. Next year, as well as protesting BAE’s presence, we hope to produce leaflets informing students about alternative employers.

Positive free speech is a complex issue and there isn’t a formulaic solution to the problems, but there are some general points to bear in mind. Recognising the multiple issues, and noticing when sections of society, organisations or perspectives are consistently being cut out, or have more than their fair share of air-time, is an important first step. This often isn’t deliberate, but a concerted effort to be aware is necessary to counteract structural biases, and tackling the status quo. We must assert that money and the market aren’t always fair mechanisms for the free trade of diverse ideas, but often favour the interests of the richest rather than true media plurality. Where large companies can afford to mass produce press releases, and sponsor internet astro-turf campaigns[vii], some also try to silence dissenting voices, like wiki-leaks, by preventing donations to the group[viii]. Of course governments are no less to blame, often using the same methods to get their voices heard, and others silenced[ix]. To counteract this, a good start would be striving for the open, transparent and accountable use of different publicity platforms – from universities to news outlets, to campaigning organisations – to promote diverse free expression. This would require deciding openly, based on clear and democratically decided criteria, whose and which opinions to empower further, to promote real and useful disagreement and discussion. Encouraging alternative not-for-profit media would be another route forwards. Ultimately, we need wider social change to tackle many of the inequalities and structural biases that underpin these issues, but such social change requires a shift in how  ideas flow.

So who decides? We clearly can’t rely on government to do this for us, any more than companies, as we have seen clear biases, and the danger of too much centralisation of power. Some can be done through individual changes in how we relate to each other, but this will have limited effect without us also using far-from-perfect organisations, such as student unions, to influence the issues and challenge hegemonic ideas. As always, no-one holds a monopoly on truth, and no single organisation or approach should be relied on, as such a dogma would suffocate individual autonomy.

Applying Positive Free Speech

Maybe the idea of positive free speech can offer us useful insights on the NUS’s no platform policy[x]. The NUS policy opposes giving a platform to or sharing a platform with fascists (BNP), certain Muslim ‘extremist’ groups, and certain individuals such as George Galloway (‘rape apologism'[xi]) and Julie Bindal (transphobic comments). Whilst explicitly fascist views are not widely aired in society in general, racism and other discrimination is still a serious problem, and the under-representation of people who might feel intimidated by the presence of the BNP is more of an issue than the white, British, nationalist perspective they endorse. However, this isn’t parallel to the three Muslim organisations, especially MPACUK, who are in many ways like other pressure groups[xii]. Whilst I don’t agree with a lot of what they stand for, and their alleged anti-Semitism, if true, might make it a different matter. With individuals, rather than groups, I feel that preventing them from speaking on matters unrelated to rape apologism / transphobia is probably not the best approach.

Safer spaces are a really important idea. Safer space policies are an attempt to say that certain types of behaviour: racism, sexism and so on; are unacceptable and will not be tolerated within a certain space. Recognition that structural biases can intimidate some people from participating fully, and so limiting free expression that exacerbates this problem, within some spaces, is vital. However, this can carry risks to negative free speech, where others can feel worried to express legitimate opinions or questions, in case they offend. By continually critiquing the ideas of safer spaces, and by ensuring that we make sure we guarantee that there are also unsafe spaces – where people strive to challenge such ideas, and explore ideas which they aren’t sure are okay, we can take the best of both.

Earlier I highlighted the dangers of unquestioningly accepting problematic common assumptions in debates. To develop as creative and critical autonomous individuals, we need to encourage and expand the areas where better discussions happen: from smaller discussions with groups of individuals, to alternative media, to rejecting the monopoly of adverts on the visual discourse we see in the streets; and to arm ourselves with marker pens and subvertising posters, to expand the debate.


[ii] Flat Earth News, Nick Davies;











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