The libertarian version of free speech wants no conditions, no boundaries and no apologies to anyone. The conservative right claims to champion free speech - but everyone seems to have their own version of it – usually one that enables an attack on actions of those on the left. The left is not bound by such principle at all – leaving them free to attack the speech of others through censorship, legislation and recently no-platforming.
No-platforming is the practice of preventing someone from their expressing ideas usually through a speaking event or some sort of public forum.
Recently, no-platforming attacks have successfully shut down speaking events in Australia by anti-Islamist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and in America by conservative commentator Ann Coulter.
As much as I would love to join our conservative media in defending liberty by shaming the no-platformers I cannot. For when you spend as much time thinking about these things as I do you realise that this is about emotion not reason.
“It's so sickening when a radical thuggish institution like Berkeley can so easily snuff out the cherished American right to free speech.” - Ann Coulter
Well it sickens me too Annie, but to shout louder than another is not denying them freedom of speech. Intimidating a person into cancelling a speaking tour comes closer, but does not either. Burning flags, burning cars even burning books does not. These are attacks on freedom of speech to be sure, but they have not and will not take away your ability to speak and subsequently to be heard. These are just provocations and punishments meted out by one tribe to spite another.
In the People's Republic of China where I once lived there is no such thing as free speech and there has not been for at least 60 years. This blog could not exist there. The authorities would have blocked it from the first post and warned me not to write another. Had I persisted they would have come around to my house and taken me away and put me in a cell for as long as they saw fit - perhaps forever. To speak of freedom is illegal.
I remember after a typically boozy business lunch in China when a few of our younger associates became relaxed enough to start complaining that the government was keeping them poor. My interpreter shot to her feet and said it was time to go and we left. Not only is it dangerous to speak, it's dangerous to listen.
There was a gay pianist who played in the lobby of the 5 star hotel where I worked in Shanghai. Over time his demeanor went from mildly effeminate to being flagrantly camp until one day he pushed it too far and they took him away.
This is what it looks like to have no freedom of speech. No freedom of expression.
Thankfully, it is very difficult to shut down free speech in the modern western world. You can read books, magazines newspapers and blogs, watch television and youtube, listen to podcasts and the radio all day and night. You will find Hirsi Ali and Coulter prominent in all of them.
No-platforming really only imposes geographical limits on speech. It does not stop you from speaking, just from speaking here. You are free to speak over there.
Even in America where free speech is enshrined in the First Amendment we know that such geographical conditions do not infringe constitutional rights. How? Well thanks to the Westboro Baptist Church.
Between 2006 and 2012 state and federal laws were passed to counter the picketing of funerals by it's hate-mongering members. First Amendment protection of the church's extreme hate speech was confirmed by the US Supreme court in 2011. So to comply with the constitution laws were made that excluded any kind of protest from within 300 ft of a funeral service. You can scream that “God hates Fags” over there, just not over here.
Proof that no-platforming is not only ineffectual but counter-productive is brought to us by the irrepressible Milo Yiannopolous. Right wing media personality Milo has been banned from Twitter, fired from Breitbart News, dropped by his publisher and blocked from speaking at universities in US and Britain. Earlier this year Milo's speech at Berkely UC was shut down by violent protesters. All of which have added to his fame and expanded his audience to make him the new Justin Bieber of the Internet (though as his recent comments in favour of sex with 13 year old boys has seen him branded a paedophile - free speech may well be the undoing of Milo).
In Australia we have no constitutional right to freedom of speech. So lawmakers are free to make whatever laws they wish. Here lies the real danger. Scream loud enough and some populist law-monger will want to criminalise no-platformers or the people they wish to silence. The civil courts could then be used to force institutions into hosting controversial speakers and be accountable for their safety. Or the speakers could be taken away by police for illegal “hate speech”.
Then their tribesmen would congratulate themselves for striking a blow for freedom and justice, when all they have done is throw those things away - forever and a day.
Making laws won't make you free. There are no safe spaces out on the street. Free speech in the public arena is, and always was, a fuck-off all-in brawl.
Let's keep it that way.
R U R Free