Tag Archives: free speech

The HE Bill – a Holocaust Denier’s Charter

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Pity poor Michelle Donelan. In mid-May the education minister went on Radio 4 to justify the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. Asked about the Bill, and whether it would require universities to respect the free speech rights of Holocaust Deniers, she said that it would. “A lot of the things we would be standing up for would be hugely offensive, would be hugely hurtful,” she acknowledged.

Boris Johnson’s spokesman insisted that Donelan had misspoken: “Holocaust denial is not something that the government would ever accept.”

Since then, Donelan has been sent out repeatedly to explain that the account she had given first time round was wrong. The Bill will not require universities to accept speech that contravenes the Equality Act. “We can hold and articulate views which are objectionable to others as long as they don’t cross the threshold of hate speech.”

For fifty years, there has been a conflict in universities over whether far-right speakers should be allowed a platform. The starting-point is a motion passed by the National Union of Students as long ago as April 1974, and periodically reaffirmed since, which encouraged universities to refuse platforms to “openly racist or fascist organisations or societies”. The main (but not the only) target of the phrase “racist or fascist organisations” was the National Front.

Ever since 1974, radicals have continued to debate among themselves how far no platform can be extended, while government ministers have tried to keep this exclusion as narrow as possible. In the early 2000s, I was an official of the university lecturers’ unions NATFHE. The campus left insisted then that “hate speech” was unlawful harassment contrary to the Race Relations Act (today the Equality Act). Ministers disliked that argument, and wanted to protect the free speech of speakers who were on the right, maybe even the far right, but not fascists. At that stage, they tried to hold the line through non-binding guidance.

The whole point of Donelan’s bill is to go beyond this previous compromise in which universities were allowed to set the limits themselves. It insists that the Equality Act ceases to apply when it comes to the question of free speech. The bill creates a new and absolute “Duty to take steps to secure freedom of speech”. The very first clause of the bill begins, “The governing body of a registered higher education provider must take the steps that, having particular regard to the importance of freedom of speech, are reasonably practicable for it to take in order to achieve.” You will notice the word “must”: the bill takes away from Universities the discretion they previously enjoyed to say that of course free speech is important but it is not the only value at stake; equality law also applies. Maybe it did in the past, but it will cease to if and when the Bill passes.

Under the new law, universities are only required to uphold free speech so far as is “reasonably practicable”. But this provides no wriggle-room. For practicable is a concept we repeatedly encounter in different areas of the law. It means what it says, that a university might consider issue of practicability in deciding when or how to put on an unwelcome event. They might not have to host it if contacted for the first time an hour before the event is due to start. What a university can no longer do is refuse to host that speaker at all.

The government could have put into the legislation a “saving clause”, words saying clearly that the Equality Act still applies – they have chosen not to do so.

The bill allows anyone to sue a university for damages, an injunction or a declaration in circumstances where they believe that their free speech has been limited. The people who will interpret the bill are therefore not ministers but judges. And they are most likely to say that the Bill has a clear purpose. It constitutionalises free speech, making it a defining purpose of universities. Students may well ask, what about the ban on hate speech? The answer will come back: I’m sorry, it doesn’t apply anymore.

Why then won’t the government just come forward and admit, as Donelan did when first questioned, that this is an absolutist free speech bill?

One answer could be that, for all the government’s professed admiration of free speech that it is actually even less keen on the universal tolerance of all opinion than the disobedient students that the bill was intended to defeat.

For the range of opinions disapproved of by ministers is wider than just Holocaust Deniers. Over the summer, we have seen complaints of students painting Palestinian flags on their hands or putting up posters in support of Palestinian rights inside British schools. Gavin Williamson responded by insisting that “schools should not present materials in a politically biased or one-sided way”. In just the same way, ministers also have a strong idea of the opinions they want to discourage when it comes to such “culture war” topics as the legacy of the British empire, the statues of prominent slavers, trans rights, etc.

If ministers are going to insist on pushing this bill, they should have the courage to stand up and defend the law they have crafted. Yes, it will make life easier for David Irving, and not just him either but others to the government’s right: the likes of Nick Griffin or Tommy Robinson. That is the whole point of their law.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy my book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics was published by Routledge in June).

Why can’t everyone speak freely?

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Douglas Murray – he’s allowed to speak – are you?

Last summer, the United Kingdom witnessed a sustained attempt to silence one of our most eloquent political voices. The attach was directed not at a speaker from the centre- or far-right, but at am intellectual associated with the left. The Cambridge academic and author of a superb history of the British Empire and its critics, Priyamvada Gopal, was accused of having employed hate speech and, after hundreds of complaints, her Twitter account was briefly suspended. The story began on 23 June 2020, when Gopal had posted on Twitter the following message: “I’ll say it again. White Lives Don’t Matter. As white lives.” The day before, supporters of Burnley Football Club had paid for an aircraft to fly a banner above their ground as their team played: “White Lives Matter Burnley”. (The club distanced itself from the stunt and banned its organiser from the club for life).

Both American and British politics had been polarised since the death of George Floyd, with advocates of racial equality complaining that the police were repeatedly killing young black men and women, while their opponents insisted that it was in principle wrong – and on occasion hateful – to demand that the state treat black people no worse than they treated whites.

Gopal’s tweet was intended to summarise in just a few words a point she has made repeatedly elsewhere, including in a comment piece for the Guardian. In her words: “White lives already matter more than others so to keep proclaiming they matter is to add excess value to them, tilting us dangerously into white supremacy. This doesn’t mean that all white people in western societies are materially well-off or don’t experience hardship, but that they don’t do so by virtue of the fact that they are white. Black lives remain undervalued and in order for us to get to the desirable point where all lives (really do) matter, they must first achieve parity by mattering. It’s not really that hard to understand unless you choose not to.”

Some 15,000 people responded to Gopal’s message on Twitter; most of them with hostile comments of their own. I’ll say that again: some 15,000 people responded… Her employer and the police were inundated with demands her sacking and arrest. Since Gopal’s original post had been by no means unpleasant, it was rapidly supplanted by further fake tweets, purporting to have been written by her, including one that her readers should “carry out a resolute offensive against the whites, break their resistance, eliminate them.”

Some but by no means all of the messages directed against Gopal were ultimately taken down by Twitter. After that, Gopal’s harassers took to emailing her directly at her university address. Gopal herself therefore took the unusual step of posting more than ninety of those emails online, including repeated threats to rape or murder her: “You will be the first to perish…” “Go and neck yourself before someone else does…” “We know where you live, we know your way to work…” And there were dozens and dozens more messages of this sort.

Right-wing journalist Douglas Murray (pictured) attacked Gopal. He attacked her for complaining about having received death threats (“a renowned cry-bully move”). What was she supposed to do, take those threats in silence or indeed welcome them meekly, like the grateful natives of British imperialist fantasy?

Murray called Gopal a “racist” for standing up to bigotry. And, while not directly calling for her dismissal from the University, he made it clear that such an act would be wholly appropriate: “Surely nobody who acts in such a deranged and deliberately provocative manner could possibly have any role at an institution of higher learning?

The Daily Mail agreed, with its journalist Amanda Platell claiming that Gopal “supports and endorses the subjugation and persecution of white people” and that she was “incit[ing] an aggressive and potentially violent race war”. Faced with the threat of libel proceedings and belatedly grasping the very high likelihood that it would lose, the Mail apologised, and paid Gopal £25,000 compensation.

Over the past five years, it has been more common for anti-racist lecturers to be dismissed by their university than protected. We might compare Gopal to the American political scientist George Ciccariello-Maher, who, annoyed by the offensive claim that the mere presence of black people in that country amounted to an actual or imminent “white genocide”, decided to expose the conspiracy theory by pretending to take at face value, and tweeted in December 2016, “All I want for Christmas is white genocide.” On this occasion, Drexel University sided with the critics, calling the professor “utterly reprehensible” and “deeply disturbing”, and placing him on administrative leave. After multiple death threats and threats to attack his family, Ciccariello-Maher resigned his university post.

There were two distinct ways in which Gopal and Ciccariello-Maher might have defended themselves. In the first, they might have argued that the accusations against them of racism were false. They were speaking against hate speech, and the accusations against them of bigotry were manifestly bogus. The difficulty with this approach is that it requires an adjudicator motivated by good faith and with a minimal political intelligence so that they are capable of distinguishing racism from anti-racism. As the case of these two universities makes clear, that is a considerable assumption. Many administrators concede in the face of right-wing social media trolls.

In the second approach, Gopal and Ciccariello-Maher might have argued that there is such a thing as free speech, and that this is a demand which should (in theory) protect the left as well as it protects the right, and that it ought to protect left-wing teachers against hostile outside critics demanding their removal from their posts. Yet neither used “free speech” in that way and it is worth thinking though why not. The simplest reason is that all participants in contemporary political debate have become used to a highly ideological conception of free speech, so that when genuine free-speech crises occur outside that context, almost no-one in politics (on either the left and right) is capable of recognising them as such.

Let me give another example: the history of the post-fascist British far right began effectively, in 2009, when a homecoming march by British soldiers was disrupted by a group of political Muslims in Luton seeking, in their own way, to highlight the cruelty of the Iraq war. Waving placards and denouncing soldiers, they antagonised Luton residents to such an extent that a movement of far-right protesters, the English Defence League, was born. How would Tommy Robinson, the leader of the EDL have responded if one of his supporters had approached and said that the principle of free expression is universal and protects all speech, even a (rhetorical) attack on British soldiers?

To ask the question is to answer it. Of course, any such argument would have been rejected with derision. Of course, free speech is for whites, and not for Muslims. And, in this part of his politics, Robinson was no extremist. Rather he was in line with a policy consensus that stretches from the far right to the large majority of British liberals at the centre of politics and to our state, which in programmes such as Prevent polices Muslim speech and threatens with imprisonment those who test the boundaries of what can be said.

The example of Islamist speech illustrates what is in fact a general phenomenon. In contemporary discourse, we have all taught ourselves to understand that free speech applies to certain situations but not to others. It applies to people seeking a platform to speak within a university, i.e. coming from outside. It does not apply to anyone (whether a student or a lecturer) who is already there. It applies to the leaders of right-wing parties who want to employ social media to advance their positions without having to deal with the problem of anyone arguing back against them. It applies to monologues but not to dialogues. It applies to the instigators of political arguments, and not to those who disagree with them, who criticise, or who heckle.

There is seemingly no space within our “free speech” debates to recognise that the people criticising hate speech are themselves speaking, or that any serious application of a right to free expression must protect them too. “Free speech” applies only to the white racist and never to their anti-racist critic. And, because we have all drifted into this shared assumption that only one person’s speech rights can be protected at a time, critics of racism or other forms of bigotry unsurprisingly tend to see “free speech” as a politics which is incapable of shielding them.

There is a longer history to these conflicts. For centuries, free speech was a cause associated with the left. Centre-right discourse around free speech changed quickly, in Britain and America, from the 1960s onwards (in the aftermath of the Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Chicago 7 and Oz trials). After many years of seeing free speech as of limited and partial value, something which the right was obliged to accomodate to but without enthusiasm, conservatives began to use free speech discourse actively. Then, from 1989-90 onwards, the right began to treat free speech as an indicator of which side you belonged to: George Bush supported free speech, while “politically correct” students were accused of abandoning constitutional principles. If the students demanded the right to express an opinion, then by definition their demands were not really “free speech” claims, but something else and unworthy of protection.

Since 2016, there has been a further shift in our shared understanding of free speech, so that it has become a value around which conservative and those further to their right can co-operate. Our ordinary “free speech” debate assumes something like the scenario with which this book opened. The body issuing the invitation is a part of the mainstream right: a group of college Republicans inviting Milo or someone further to their right – even a fascist. Everyone has become so familiar to that scenario that we forget that free speech might be employed in other contexts: in defence of a worker’s employment, or by the left as well as the right.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my own next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

Trolls, shit-posters… you have nothing to lose but your self-made chains

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Friends who only know me from me from my books about fascism sometimes ask whether I’ve ended up on far-right hitlists. Not really. There was a death threat I was sent when I was at university – more a chain letter with some pornographic cartoons than anything more serious. There was a time in Sunderland when the organisers of the BNP branch read a letter of mine in the local paper, and tried to knock on every door of the street I lived until they found me. (The street ran to number 800 and, as far as I can tell, they never got anywhere near the flat where I was staying).

Years ago, in Liverpool, a former BNP member who’d been on trial for attempted murder got hold of my email address, and that only. But, to be honest, he was more looking for someone -anyone – to read his turgid memoirs than to do any harm to me.

In the last decade, most of the hatemail has come from other socialists. Like the person in the SWP who wrote to me, “Fuck off back to Eton you filthy rich tosser … you snivelling piece of shit.” When I pointed out that he’d sent what he plainly thought was an anonymous message from his private work computer, and therefore that I could identify him, the comrade had the good sense to respond, “I was completely wrong to say the things I did and I would like to offer my apologies.”

Then there was the fellow antizionist who wrote to me last year, “I suspect that the only thing you have fought for is a good seat at a restaurant … I won’t congratulate you on becoming a class traitor, not least because you were always of the wrong class anyway”. Which was at least better-written, and me laugh, even if the rest of the letter was annoying, stupid and rude.

What intrigues me is why people send this “red-on-red” fire? Obviously, there’s the narcissism of small differences, the way in which when you’re stuck at a point on the political spectrum it can feel as if people with a similar politics to you are operating as gatekeepers, keeping your voice from getting the attention it deserves.

But I think there’s something more than that, to do with the long-term consequences of the relocation of life from off- to online. Some readers will recall a time when online discussion was minimal, when it was something which took place in universities and through an electronic infrastructure which excluded the vast majority of people, and when other means of international communication was prohibitively expensive. (Don’t you remember having saying to people: I need to make a call, it’s international – I’ll pay you?)

If you had said to anyone 30 years ago that we were on the verge of a transformation in people’s ability to speak, opening up interpersonal communication to billions of people, the prospect would have filled every one of us with delight.

Plainly, social media is not only a negative phenomenon. Billions of people devote their creativity and ingenuity to the effort to make that experience as pleasant as possible. A shared experience on this scale could not simply be unpleasant, any more than all “food” or all “water” could be bad. Yet the fact that speech is mediated – i.e. communication controlled by huge businesses – has replaced the prospect of liberation with something less.

We spend hours of our lives, dozens of them a week, hundreds a month, thousands a year – doing what, exactly? We want to be liked; we want our posts to be read. We know that the most effective means of obtaining a like – a follow, a friendship request – is by “taking down” something we disagree with. This behaviour isn’t an attraction to someone else. It is alluring to you, dear reader. It is alluring to me.

There are a thousand fine gradations between making a well-deserved point, puncturing someone else’s nonsense, and mocking them openly, harassing, calling for them to be dismissed. And yet these are all fine distinctions within one total set of behaviour: lines drawn on the same piece of cloth.

Anyonymous posting, commenting beneath the line – they change the people who do them.

The free speech battles of our time thrive on fume. Both sides present the enemy as capable of dealing to them a fatal defeat from which they could never recover. Typically, one side makes this claim with greater truthfulness than the other. But, typically, that justice claim gets lost, shrouded in the claims of mutual victimhood.

Somehow, we have to detach ourselves from the social media companies. The last time I looked, the wealth of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was $80 billion, almost all of it contained in the share price of his company. He was the world’s fourth richest person. Since 2012, Facebook’s share price has been growing at the rate of roughly $50 billion a year, earning Zuckerberg an effective income of about $8 billion a year.

We need to stop feeding their personal wealth; we also need to stop behaving in the ways that their products encourage.

(If you’ve enjoyed this piece, my next book, No Free Speech for Fascists: Exploring ‘No Platform’ in History, Law and Politics, is published by Routledge in June. It can be ordered here or here. Tickets for the book-launch – with Evan Smith and Kate Doyle Griffiths – can be ordered here).

What’s so wrong with words?

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Thane Rosenbaum’s book is part of a growing literature in the US, expressing doubts about that country’s free speech (“First Amendment”) tradition. Most of my readers come from the UK so it’s worth explaining what he’s against.

In as short as I can make this for Brits: the US Constitution was ratified in 1790. Eighteen month later, the First Amendment was added, as part of a group of amendments all protecting the individual from arbitrary government by protecting rights to jury trial, the right to silence, etc. The first amendment limits the legislature from curbing free expression, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech”. For more than a century after the amendment was ratified, judges ignored it. In the 1920s, judges invoked the first amendment, but in a canting, hypocritical way, eulogising its importance while criminalising all speech Socialists, Communists and radical trade unionists.

Since 1945, the First Amendment was extended beyond its original remit (“Congress shall…”) to include all parts of the government, and all private citizens in the US. All speech has required to be tolerated, even pornographers, fascists… Since about 1990, free speech has become a totem for the US right, a shield to protect everything they say, and a sword against their enemies. So, after the Trump coup of 6 January, the President defended himself from impeachment was by saying that it didn’t matter that he had incited his supporters to kill, to destroy property, or to sack Capitol Hill, the First Amendment makes all speech legal, irrespective of what comes from it.

Through the 39 chapters of his book, Rosenbaum gives his readers a series of reasons to doubt whether the First Amendment still does any good in protecting what most people would consider free speech.

His book begins in 2017 with Charlottesville, and the various neo-Nazis gathered there to chant “Jews will not replace us”. The idea behind that chant is the belief that every black person present in the US is merely by being alive, carrying out an act of violence against whites. And that Jews are the secret organisers behind the imagined mass murder of white people. These fantasies of anti-white violence are invoked, pretty obviously, to legitimise what fascists can tell themselves is pre-emptive and defensive violence on their party, murders such as the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in which 11 Jewish worshipers were killed.

Why, Rosenbaum asks, would anyone want to allow speech which is an incitement to murder? In reality, the First Amendment, is just one of several ways in which US law struggles to keep up with what every other affluent society has been doing for decades. No other country in the developed world permits this, any more than they tolerate the death penalty, or allow employers to go without paying maternity pay.

From there, Rosenbaum goes to other kinds of speech tolerated under the First Amendment, social media trolling, cyberbullying. Again, outside the US these are dealt with in the civil or criminal law as acts of “hate speech” (the US term) or “harassment” (as in the UK and Europe). Why does the US make itself the exception? “Other nations,” he writes, “managed to avoid the free speech madness”.

Rosenbaum responds to the argument that bad ideas die out when they are subjected to public discussion. To which, he asks, what happens if you are the individual who has to hear them, and you are in the middle of a riot?

From there, Rosenbaum pivots. He wants to be seen as a careful, balanced, person. Not an extremist, just someone worried about the excess of free speech. Therefore, there is a mandatory chapter insisting that as much as the right is a problem, there is also an issue of intolerant students. (He also has some pretty stomach-turning things to say about the rights of Palestinian to speak – or as Rosenbaum sees it, their obligation to be silent).

There is a lot wrong with this book. But it has its moments, too. Rosenbaum makes points which 90% of Americans don’t get to hear. That the First Amendment was only ever supposed to be a rule that bound governments, not individuals. That it is a right to speak, not an obligation to listen. That it does nothing to protect right-wing or far-right speakers, from the acts of people who will permit them to have a platform but are also intending to debate, to heckle, to subject them to slow handclapping.

That not every kind of spoken word is an idea.

That the much spoken-about free marketplace of ideas does not exist and could not meaningfully exist in a world dominated by the tech giants.

That the hearing of unpleasant words can cause physical harm, that stays in people’s bodies, that ruins their lives.

That the people who are on the receiving end of hate speech have a right to dignity and, at the very least, these two things need to be balanced.

Reading a book like this, as a socialist, or a European, or a practising lawyer, or someone who reads more than, I don’t know, one book every decade, you have to pinch yourself every two seconds and tell yourself: Let it go. You are not the audience for this book. It is not aimed at you. It is addressed at an imagined Middle American audience saturated with the assumptions of that media culture.

From that perspective this book is … ok. Ish. Kind of.

It doesn’t have the wide reading of a Jeremy Waldron, or the fizz of a P. E. Moskowitz, or the commitment of a Natasha Lennard or a Shane Burley or a Talia Lavin. But it’s a start.

More speech; less racism

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Writing about the politics of the present is tricky. The minimum time it takes between having an idea for a book and seeing it in print is 18 months (usually it’s longer). Any writer asks themselves: if I write about X now (whatever X is), will people still be thinking about it in a year’s time? It must be strange for Gavan Titley; because since he wrote his book free speech has only grown in importance. No platform, cancel culture: its jargon has escaped the milieu of a few impassioned people arguing with one another on social media, and all over the mainstream press the same story repeats itself again and again: the left is closing down people’s opinions, the left is made up of bullies and petty despots…

Most of the leftists I know are doing their hardest to balance between two competing imperatives: 1. We want to see more speech, not less. We know that the banning instincts of the state and the political right have hardly gone away (think the blacklisting of trade unionists, or the way claims of anti-semitism have been used to cancel any discussion of Palestine). We also know that neo-liberalism constantly recreates itself from below, inviting public denunciations of people who breach this week’s social taboo (e.g. think of the way the police dished out fines to those accused of petty breaches of the Coronavirus regulations). On both those scores, any principled leftist is surely against the state, and against the cop that sits in all of our heads – communists and conservatives alike.

On the other hand, 2. We distrust intensely the way in which free speech has become an ideological weapon of the right. Think of the “trans wars”. A group of people want to exclude trans people from women’s toilets, domestic violence refuges, and feminist events. This notion of exclusion is overtly a means towards keeping trans women out of spaces they might otherwise go in. And yet, any time trans people respond (which they do sometimes with the utmost wit, and sometimes with grotesque fury) the answer comes back: “look how trans politics silences women”. In that way, a project of exclusion and insubordination repackages itself as the instrument of the weak protecting themselves against those who would silence them. And this is hardly an isolated example. Today’s ideological version of “Free speech” is to politics what Persil is to clothes: it repeatedly cleans the powerful, making them into the new oppressed and turning the vulnerable into their oppressors.

Now, as you balance these two imperatives (the need to support free speech while opposing its politicisation), it’s easy to lose your compass. If you only talk about the ideology, you can end up sounding as if you support censorship. If you’re not careful, you can become a censor.

But if you don’t talk about the ideological treatment of free speech then your view of politics will cause you to side with the people complaining loudest about being silenced, who today are the people in the United States (and in the UK) who want to see the statues of slave owners to stay up and not the ones calling for them to come down.

I am saying all of this to locate Gavan Titley’s book, which is one of the clearest accounts that has yet been published of the second of these dynamics – i.e. how free speech is being misused by those who have turned it into an ideology.

What Titley’s interested in rather is how racist speech, and in particular the racist speech that was used being between against Muslims during the height of the War on Terror shields itself from criticism then counter-attacks, through using the gambit that its opponents (the left and racial outsiders) are in favour of silencing others.

Just to take a single example, about 2/3 of the way through his book, Titley tells the story of how following the terrorist attacks in November 2015, the French state carried out more than three thousand raids on Muslims (six of whom were later investigated for possible terrorism offences). French politicians insisted that in carrying out these violent and punitive measures they were protecting the nation from Islam, which was incompatible with free speech. French President Hollande boated that “The Republic equals freedom of expression.” The French Prime Minister hinted at a return to France’s colonial mission: “France carries freedom of speech everywhere”.

Titley uses a single example to break through this miasma of ideological posturing. He recounts a raid which was described by one lawyer Ramzi Kassem, in which a Muslim man endured armed police busting unwarned into his home, and pointing automatic rifles at the faces of children. Finally, they found an image of a figure that would justify the raid: a picture on one wall of a man with a fist-length beard. Who was this Muslim, this terrorist? Was it Bin Laden? Tell us, the cops demanded. With as much dignity as he could summon, the man answered, “It’s Victor Hugo.”

I’m not going to summarise the whole of Titley’s book – it’s lively, compelling and principled, and anyone who cares about the topic should buy a copy – but only provide an outline.

In speaking about racism, Titley has in mind a kind of supposedly universal liberal politics which is about as radical as most employers’ HR departments. From the perspective of those who champion it, this liberalism insists that racism is a universal evil which can never be tolerated. But spinning against this idea is another idea which at times complement and at times contradicts it, that free speech is a universal good.

Titley writes about “Closure,” i.e. what happens when the forms of racism which we associate with the far right (i.e. the supposedly hipster racism of a Richard Spencer or a Milo Yiannopolous) clashes with the competing desire of liberals to prohibit such speech as racism or to allow it on free speech terms? His answer is that there is a recurring and shallow debate in which the latter priority repeatedly wins out over the former. Racism is a universal evil, a something to which no right-minded person can agree, until it becomes “opinion” at which point it is sanctified.

“Liberal free speech theory,” Titley writes, “assimilates speech to thought, a move which configures speech as ‘costless and priceless’, that is, as of intrinsic value as an expression of conscience, but of no causal impact as an action in the world.”

Titley is also interested in “Culture”, meaning the idea that it is possible to write off an entire category of people on the grounds that they are primitives who do not accept the superior moral virtue of “our” commitment to free speech.

Finally, he writes about “Capture”, in other words the way in which the far right has captured free speech discourse and uses it in a narrow but effective way (think of the attacks on British and US universities where students have closed down talks by far right speakers and have been threatened in response – with Trump even proposing to cut off federal funding to Berkeley if it wouldn’t platform his favourite speakers).

This summary doesn’t do justice to the nuance of Titley’s argument or the way on which, again and again, he comes up with a novel and memorable way of describing processes which are likely to be familiar to any reader: in speaking of the claimed “virtuous marginality” of the people who lead online debates, or the way that claims of being silenced are plainly about “generating publicity within the accelerated dynamics of the attention economy.”

Titley is also wise about No Platform, insisting that it is “a strategy, not a position. It recognises that protest cannot fully unsettle the generative dynamics of a free speech event, and can rarely puncture the claim of victimhood that de-platformed speakers are usually only too happy to parlay into political and media currency.” If I read this right, then what he’s saying is that students are wise to be open to the possibility of closing down speaking events when the speaker is actually a fascist, or close enough so that their proximity is widely accepted. But, that this move carries a tactical risk: that by over-extending No Platform, the student left can gift the right a moral victory. Being principled isn’t easy. It requires a moral intelligence and a willing to consider the possibility that you’re wrong.

“Free speech”, Titley concludes, has become a way of silencing disagreement. What then is the answer? Pretty clearly to me, it can only be a liberated ideal on the universal right of expression – even for those who aren’t racists – even for those who don’t have the backing of millionaire book publishers.

Titley isn’t really arguing that Free speech is racist – if he or anyone else really thought that, then the poet William Morris would have to be a racist for leading the campaign that established Trafalgar Square as London’s free speech zone, Rosa Luxemburg would have to be a racist when she spoke out against wartime censorship, and even James Baldwin – didn’t he debate William Buckley Jr, when he could have no-platformed him? There’s an awful lot of good politics you’d have to junk if you really thought the left was about closing down speech, rather than opening and democratising it.

The logic to which the book is pointing is rather our shared need to take over the printing presses and the internet, and to build models of direct conversation without the wretched media platforms through which we try our hardest to communicate.