The Cambridge Union’s idea of free speech is a figment of an impoverished liberal imaginationExecElect

Last week, the new universities minister, Sam Gyimah, held a small private ‘seminar’ in Whitehall to discuss the release of new government guidelines on free speech, aiming to quash the supposed tyranny of student protest and no-platforming practices on campus. Among the selected attendees was the Home Office official tasked with overseeing national delivery of the government’s Prevent duty, which demands surveillance and censorship of dissenting political speech. The dark irony of this will not be lost on anyone who has followed the implementation of this policy at this university, where just last year a PalSoc event was censored under Prevent.

Once a rallying cry for the Enlightenment’s radical democrats, a demand for the rights of the politically marginalised and disempowered – fought for and won from below – free speech has been misappropriated as a cause célèbre of the powerful. The left has largely ceded this rhetorical ground, leaving the gravest enemies of freedom of speech as its loudest public partisans. How did we arrive at this disturbing juncture, and how might the left go about the urgent task of reclaiming the mantle in a public discussion so tainted by confusion and obfuscation?

One reason for the hysteria among conservative commentators, politicians and far-right agitators about free speech is political panic. On both sides of the Atlantic, the ascendancy of the left is being fuelled by the young, and with little of import to say about political economy and the salient structural issues that brought millions to the ballot box for Corbyn and Sanders, Conservatives have settled for an imaginary culture war as their playground of political contestation. “The nihilist left wants to abolish free speech completely – and universities are capitulating”, screams a (non-satirical) Telegraph headline.

‘Free debate’ as typically conceived and proudly defended by the Cambridge Union is a figment of an impoverished liberal imagination

At work here also is some conceptual confusion, wherein ‘free speech’ and the right to a ‘platform’ are thought to be conterminous. No-platforming, as practiced on occasion by student activists, is the chief target of Gyimah’s ire and has been the subject of innumerable denunciations by vice-chancellors, including Stephen Toope, who recently announced in an interview that it has “no place” at Cambridge. To understand why most high profile cases of no-platforming do no harm to the free speech of targeted persons, we should first consider why we desire freedom in general.

Freedom means little when shorn of conditions in which it can be realised. For most people, that is, it has a telos: an end. We desire political freedom in order to actively participate in, and shape, democratic life, and the freedom to speak so we can be heard. What, then, of someone like Germaine Greer being subjected to an attempt at no-platforming? Such prominent public figures already, by virtue of their social positions, enjoy privileged access to a variety of media platforms in the public sphere.

The notion that their free speech is curtailed by student-activist platform denial, then, is absurd. When in 2011 Cambridge students disrupted a lecture by the then Universities Minister David Willetts, for instance, they were widely accused of violating his free speech. Such claims are absurd not only because public figures already have access to platforms ad infinitum, but due to the reality that no-platforming, in this moment of frenzy, often only elevates further the voices of those it seeks to marginalise. Students at Cardiff might have been spared Greer’s transphobia, only for the nation to witness it on Newsnight. This reveals at once the intellectual poverty of no-platforming’s freedom-loving detractors and the strategic myopia afflicting many of its student practitioners. It is a legitimate tool of activism, to be sure, but the left should carefully consider its utility, and remember its origins as an anti-fascist tactic.

Suppression of free speech, perpetrated by its self-proclaimed defenders, should be loudly named for what it is

Who then might be best placed to promote free speech on campus? ‘Free debate’ as typically conceived and proudly defended by the Cambridge Union is a figment of an impoverished liberal imagination, which conjures a marketplace of intellectual exchange and contestation immune and abstracted from asymmetric power relations. Holding to this idea results in the theatrical reproduction of the world’s injustices and inequalities for the entertainment of privileged students and in the name of openness. How to engage with rogue states that bombard and ethnically cleanse civilian populations? Never fear: platform their propagandists. Fascists on the rise in Europe? Invite them to speak so that they might be ‘challenged’ by Cambridge students.

In denying (or ignoring) the potential material ramifications of speech-acts, this approach is not only distasteful but dangerous. Real intellectual bravery and rigour might prompt discomfort at the proximity of Islamophobe Katie Hopkins’ platforming at the Union to the terrorist attack at Finsbury Park Mosque last summer. As the philosopher Herbert Marcuse wrote in 1965, “what is proclaimed and practiced as tolerance today is in many of its … manifestations serving the cause of oppression.”


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Ultimately, it is only the left that can defend and extend freedom of speech on campus. Negative freedom of speech, prized by liberals and understood as that unbound by external restraint or repression, is under attack. The government’s Prevent duty encourages silencing, censorship and ideological profiling on campus, targeting speech critical of the British state’s war crimes. Professors in the US are sacked and disciplined for political speech so radical as supporting Palestine, opposing white supremacy and satirising the racism of the late Barbara Bush. This suppression of free speech, perpetrated by its self-proclaimed defenders, should be loudly named for what it is.

And above all, it is only those committed to fighting for radically transformed social conditions, in which all might positively realise their freedom to speak – conceived as the ability to be heard as citizens with stakes in common democratic deliberation – that can claim to be the true champions of free speech. This is the vision of freedom passed to the left by radical democratic thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and we should fight for it without hesitation, wresting back the mantle of free speech promotion from the fraudulent hypocrites who have for too long trumpeted it as their own.

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